The despicable terrorist attacks in Paris and subsequent threats against the U.S. homeland are generating serious security concerns that require an equally serious response. As the busiest travel week of the year approaches, Americans planning to visit family and friends need to know that they can travel safely.
Keeping threats out of our country is of paramount importance. But we must do so in a way that preserves our ability to move freely within our great nation. After 9/11, we learned that anxiety could overwhelm smart policy--resulting in so many measures that they paradoxically impeded the ability to keep travelers secure.
Over time, and with the help of experts in risk detection and management, these policies have vastly improved. Americans now benefit from a robust security system that is efficient, effective and that preserves the flow of people and goods--the lifeblood of our free society.
In that process, we learned three valuable lessons that are worth applying to the threats we face today:
Avoid "security theater." In the aftermath of 9/11, millions of travelers were subjected to long lines, delays and an assortment of intrusions, which seemed to be the new price of traveling in a more dangerous world. But increased hassle does not equal increased security.
Faced with threats, policymakers are inclined to implement policies that might make people feel more secure but that don't actually improve safety. It is something security expert Bruce Schneier calls "security theater."
A good example was the National Guard's presence at airports in the wake of 9/11. Although the National Guard might have put some travelers at ease, their weapons were not even loaded.
When it comes to travel security, process and actions must be guided by what actually works--not what merely makes people feel better. Too often, a "ready-fire-aim" approach can sow public confusion and unnecessary alarm.
If we target everyone, we target no one. It is human nature to try to mitigate risks by covering all the bases. But the best course of action is to focus security resources where they are most effective.
To bolster traveler safety, experts must use data and analysis to inform their decision-making process. Take the TSA's PreCheck program, which expedites airport security by removing the focus on low-risk passengers and dedicating more resources to others that have not yet been screened.
The greatest benefit has been to allow TSA to focus its resources on a smaller, higher-risk pool of travelers. Overall, PreCheck has improved airport security while streamlining the screening process.
Don't do the terrorists' work for them. Terrorist groups sow fear, and leverage that fear to inflict economic damage. Measures that disrupt commerce or compromise freedom of movement play right into their hands.
The Visa Waiver Program is a perfect example of a policy that strengthens national security and preserves vital economic activity. Yet some policymakers have questioned the program's suitability at a time of heightened fear that terrorists can exploit our willingness to welcome international visitors.
While this is a serious concern, we must remember that the VWP actually makes us safer by significantly boosting U.S. foreign intelligence efforts. Countries that participate in the VWP must provide U.S. security officials with very thorough information on their passport holders, inform the U.S. of any travel to terrorist hotspots or other red-flag activity, and impose rigorous standards for passport security. Travelers are screened against law enforcement and security databases, and the U.S. regularly audits VWP participant countries to ensure they comply with security standards.
Americans will be confronted with threats from around the globe for the foreseeable future. The U.S. cannot control this reality, but it can control its response.
Secure borders and the freedom to travel do not have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, they can--and should--be mutually reinforcing. Our country has not only the option, but the imperative, to choose freedom over fear.