Up and Down with homeland security…. Are the winds changing on homeland security?


It has been attributed to President Woodrow Wilson that the public sentiment is like the wind used by a sailing ship. The sailor can use it to power a voyage, but cannot sail against it. This metaphor eludes to the power of public opinion in directing the political agenda, a powerful theory when considering the changing dynamics of the homeland security mission.

Just over 1-in-2 Americans are satisfied with U.S. terrorism policies. Recent Gallup polls on the nation’s most important issues note Americans are as satisfied with terrorism policies as they are with race relations, which at this point is not promising. Why the drop in support? The policies didn't change. So what did? Are the winds changing on homeland security?

Currently, only 2% of Americans see terrorism as one of the most important issues affecting the U.S. This trend is not new. Following a significant drop in attention within a few short years after September 11th, the ebb and flow of attention towards terrorism never trended high among Americans, spiking only nominally after each subsequent terrorism event. The bombings in Madrid and London, followed by the failed Christmas Day bomber all reminded Americans that terrorism is real and it impacts people. Even the Charlie Hebdo event appears to have caused a small rise in attention.

However, what caused the dramatic 15% drop in support of terrorism policies? And more importantly, how does that bode for the future of homeland security? Is it possible Americans no longer recognize the value of security? According to the CATO Institute, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has spent, over the last 10 years, an average of over $40 billion annually, and in some cases, as high as $80 billion toward the effort of protecting U.S. citizens. As public support shows signs of quickly waning to levels of 2005, it is questionable whether DHS will continue to be able to spend at the same levels without another significantly tragic and salient event. This decline may be the recognizable manifestation of Anthony Down’s issue-attention cycle, applied to homeland security. Once salient issues reach their dramatic climax, they become susceptible to being displaced from public attention (and the political agenda) by other newer dramas as they emerge.

This decline presents the larger challenge. A changing political landscape means potentially shifting priorities. We are starting to see this behavior emerge in the creation of the Cyber Threat Intelligence Integration Center (CTIIC). Priorities are shifting to a new frontier of the war on terrorism. The future spectrum and landscape of homeland security and protection against terrorism represents the terrae incognitae- the land of the unknown. Investing in the protection against unknown and unknowable threats provides a real challenge to homeland security professionals in articulating return on investment. Homeland security professionals should become keen at understanding threats, measuring generally their often opaque environs, and most importantly articulating the value of investment in risk mitigation.

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