Tuesday’s terror bombings in Brussels brought new focus to a question which has troubled Americans since 9/11: what is the correct balance between freedom and security?
Terror experts warn that the United States is engaged, along with other countries, in a very real war, against an enemy which recognizes neither battlefields nor conventional targets.
“What we need to realize is things have changed in warfare,” says Retired Colonel Jennifer Hesterman, a counterterrorism expert. “Civilians are now the target.”
And, especially in the United States where Americans love freedom of movement, citizens are often very exposed.
“The takeaway is that we need to prepare,” says Hesterman. “Everything that makes us great as a democracy, makes us more vulnerable to this particular enemy.”
Hesterman joined other security experts for a seminar Tuesday at the College of Dupage’s sprawling Homeland Security Training Center, a program beamed to remote sites across the United States. Attendees, ranging from police to business owners, were warned that the world changed after 9/11, and continues to change as terrorists learn from each attack.
“A soft target could be a school, a Church, a hospital,” says Dr. Michael Fagel, who teaches courses in safety and security. “The megachurches we see with 2 or 3 thousand congregants? Those are target rich environments.”
So-called soft targets have become the targets of choice for terrorists around the globe. Hotels in Mumbai, trains in Madrid and London, a mall in Nairobi, and cafes in Paris. All have two chilling attributes: easy access, and little or no security.
“It could be anything that’s inviting to people,” Fagel said. “Because if it’s inviting to people, it’s inviting to the bad guys.”
Other nations have clamped down. In Israel, citizens have passed through metal detectors at theatres and shopping malls for years. Check-in procedures at airports can take hours, as each passenger is questioned about his life, his family, and his planned activities while on Israeli soil. But conventional wisdom has always been that Americans would never stand for such onerous restrictions on their freedom.
“You really want a free society?” says Tom Brady, the Homeland Security Center’s executive director. “Free comes with a price. And that’s where it becomes difficult to protect everything.”
A look at the targets in Brussels provides a chilling illustration: an airport and subway, which could have been O’Hare and the CTA.
“We’re no different here in Chicago than Brussels,” Brady notes. “And people need to realize, it could happen anywhere.”