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Security Expert: 'We Cannot Live in Fear' About 'Soft' Targets


The attack on the shopping mall in Kenya has many people even more concerned about how to secure public places like shopping malls, sports venues, churches, so-called soft targets here in the U.S. and in other countries. For more on that question, we turn once again to Clark Kent Ervin. He's director of the Aspen Institute's Homeland Security Program. He's the former inspector general of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

CLARK KENT ERVIN: It's my pleasure, Michel. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: You're known for having raised concerns very early on about so-called soft targets. And I just wondered how your thinking has evolved over the years since the 9/11 attacks. Do you feel that - which soft targets in the U.S. do you think are most at risk today, and has your thinking evolved on that over time?

ERVIN: Right. Well, it really has not evolved, Michel. As you say, during my time in government, I was the first inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security, so 2003, 2004. As you know, a couple of years thereafter, 2005, 2006, I wrote a book about the vulnerabilities in the homeland and the likelihood of attacks on various targets in the United States. And in preparation for this interview, I went back to read it and I wrote, the very fact that there hasn't yet been an attack on a soft target in the United States increases the danger of one, and the harder we harden hard targets, the more likely an attack on a soft target becomes. And I call that a deadly double irony. And so, it seems to me there's no question, but - well, you know, we have had, since I wrote that, a soft target attack in the United States by terrorists and that was the Boston Marathon bombing.

MARTIN: Boston Marathon bombing, yeah. Absolutely.

ERVIN: Right. And, you know, that is - when I say that, I mean an open venue like that, you know, a bunch of miles of road - that is, needless to say, the hardest soft target. I mean, it's virtually impossible to lock that down. It is entirely predictable, as I said many years ago, that things like shopping malls would likewise be in terrorist crosshairs. And, you know, we've seen this horrific attack on a shopping mall in Kenya now.

And given the fact that this attack lasted for four days - and that's partly, frankly, due to the relative incompetence of the Kenyan forces - one would think that such an attack wouldn't last as long here in the United States. But the fact that it did take four days to bring the terrorists to heel - and we still don't really know what happened - and it riveted the world's attention for that period of time. It seems to me, there's no question that we're eventually going to have one, a shopping mall attack, here in the United States.

MARTIN: We've seen, in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, certain measures taking place, like, for example, at sporting events and arenas. We've seen some of the teams institute measures like, you can only bring in backpacks and purses of...

ERVIN: Right.

MARTIN: ...A certain size and they have to be clear, plastic...

ERVIN: Right.

MARTIN: ...You know, for example. Is that enough?

ERVIN: Well, it's not enough, but it's a start. You know, as you say, we're moving in the right direction. Some sports stadiums have metal detectors. Certainly, for major iconic sports events, like, you know, the Super Bowl and World Series and such, I know that there are bomb-sniffing dogs deployed and there's bomb-sniffing technology. There's a heavy police presence and the like, and I'm sure that there are undercover agents, as well. But we need to do more of that, frankly. Now, obviously, you know, we always have to stress that you can't prevent every single terror attack.

But the good news, as I wrote in the book, is that we have hardened obvious hard targets, like, you know, the Pentagon, the White House and our airport facilities. We know that those are in terrorist crosshairs. But the flipside of that is, it makes it more likely that terrorists will eventually carry out attacks on soft targets. And so we need to do more, especially with regard to the ones that are really the major ones and that are most likely to be under attack in major cities like New York and Washington, D.C.

MARTIN: Hard targets tend to be government entities...

ERVIN: That's right.

MARTIN: ...As you described. But the soft targets tend to be public open spaces, which people enjoy precisely because they're open spaces...

ERVIN: Exactly right.

MARTIN: ...Or private buildings, which sports stadiums tend to be. And I think another story that got less attention than I think it would have otherwise, because it took place in the same week as the attack on the shopping mall, is the attack on that church in Pakistan that killed 85 people.

ERVIN: Exactly.

MARTIN: And what should we be thinking about in response to that?

ERVIN: Well, it's very difficult, Michel. You know, for many years - thankfully, this isn't the case so much now - but Israel was the target of soft target attacks all the time - restaurants, shopping malls, movie theaters and the like. And in response to that, some years ago, the Israelis instituted these really draconian measures, such that soft targets are now treated as if they were hard targets. You know, these measures are in place as a matter of course now, and Israelis accept it as a matter of course because they know that they're in terrorist crosshairs. Thankfully, we have not been subjected to that on a major basis here in the United States. That coupled with the fact that we have this long history of being a completely open society means that we are much more resistant to these kinds of measures than other people around the world.

And the surveillance dispute that we talked about a couple of months ago also highlights this. The issue is we've got to figure out the right balance between security and liberty. You can't have perfect security, and you can't have perfect liberty. And for now, the answer is, you know, we tend to whipsaw between one extreme and the other. Right after an attack or at the prospect of an attack, a foiled plot, people are more willing to give up some of their liberty in order to make themselves more secure. As time passes between attacks, people are less likely to do it. What I've argued for is neither hysteria nor complacency, neither end of the spectrum, but a medium. And so, you know, that's the challenge for policymakers and for average citizens.

MARTIN: Is there something that you would most want people listening to our conversation to be thinking about in the days ahead as they go to public events that they are accustomed to enjoying? Is there something that citizens should be doing to better prepare themselves?

ERVIN: I guess I'd say two things. One, you know, this see something, say something campaign that former Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano touted, you know, it can be dismissed as a kind of publicity campaign, but it should be taken seriously because at the end of the day, that really is all the citizens can do. But that's an important thing to do. See something, say something meaning, know now, in the post-9/11 world, that we're in terrorist crosshairs, so if you see something out of the ordinary, then be wary of that and call authorities' attention to it. That's the first thing. And the second thing I'd say is we cannot live in fear. If we do so, then we will have done terrorists' work for them.

And so we just have to recognize that there will be terror attacks in the country. We can't prevent every single one. That's no excuse for the government and for we Americans not to do everything we can to secure ourselves. In the same way that there needs to be a balance between security and liberty, there also needs to be a balance in every person's mind, recognizing that everything possible should be done to prevent terror attacks. But all that having been said, there will be terror attacks, notwithstanding

MARTIN: Clark Kent Ervin is director of the Aspen Institute's Homeland Security Program. He was with us on the line from his office in Washington, D.C. Clark, thanks so much for speaking with us once again.

ERVIN: It's my pleasure, Michel. Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.