Examining Lessons Learned: Security and Openness in Post-9/11 America

October 20, 2011

By Marlene M. Johnson

I was pleased to recently co-author an opinion piece with Asa Hutchinson, the first under secretary for border and transportation security for the Department of Homeland Security, on the subject of national security ten years after 9/11. You can read the piece below, or download a copy on the NAFSA Web site: “Examining Lessons Learned: Security and Openness in Post-9/11 America.” I look forward to your comments and hope you will join us in this important national conversation.


Examining Lessons Learned: Security and Openness in Post-9/11 America

By Asa Hutchinson and Marlene M. Johnson

Asa Hutchinson served as the first under secretary for border and transportation security in the newly created Department of Homeland Security from 2003 to 2005 and represented Arkansas in the U.S. House of Representatives between 1997 and 2001. Marlene M. Johnson is executive director and CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

Mark Twain said, "What gets us into trouble is not what we don't know. It's what we know for sure that just ain't so."

The 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on our country has been a time to remember, and to reflect on what we have learned, what we have accomplished, and what remains for us to do. But it's also important that we step back and ask: What did we learn, under the pressure of those desperate times, that in retrospect "just ain't so"?

We have learned a great deal. There was widespread concern in the aftermath of 9/11 that there would be more attacks. The fact that there has not been another large-scale attack during the last 10 years is a tribute to our increased security efforts. As a perusal of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission would show, there is also much more that we need to do to make ourselves safer from future attacks. But it is the things we have learned that "just ain't so" that perhaps most threaten our future.

Before 9/11, we understood that America's openness to international education was an essential element of our country's strength. Generations of international students who studied at our universities took a deep understanding of America back with them to leadership positions in their societies. Foreign professors who came here taught disciplines that were important to our security and our international leadership. Foreign scientists helped us build and sustain our edge in security- and competitiveness-related fields. Foreign entrepreneurs, many of whom first came here as students and exchange visitors, helped fuel innovation and growth in our economy.

This sustained infusion of international relationships, perspectives, knowledge, and talent is even more important for us today, in this highly interconnected and competitive global age. But it's harder to access because we have increased security and placed more obstacles in the path of those who wish to be educated or trained in the United States. After 9/11, we heard the argument that we need to close our borders to foreign exchange, because security trumps everything and we can't be too safe. It was argued that we must strive for 100-percent certainty that we won't inadvertently let "the wrong person" into this country. In some cases we gave in to those arguments, and we have imposed more and more hurdles, adding another layer after each terrorist scare, in an endless quest for more perfect security. Yet in freedom's heart we know that it "just ain't so"—at least not quite—and when we diminish freedom and international participation it actually prevents us from maximizing our security.

The truth is that we can be too safe. Every parent knows this. If we try to shield our children from all possible danger, tempting though that may be, we only make them worse off in the long run. The same is true of our country. It is indeed important to do everything we reasonably can to keep bad people out of our country. But if we focus on this so single-mindedly that we end up keeping good people out of our country too—people who can help build our economy, teach our children, keep our science cutting-edge, connect us to the global community, and, go out into the world with a better understanding of America and with the skills to help build a better future for all of us—we make ourselves more vulnerable, not less. The search for the holy grail of 100-percent security in fact leads to less security, as over time we create conditions that distance us from the very values that make us secure - the freedom that underpins our capacity to embrace opportunities and tackle challenges in the global age.

Because it is impossible to protect against all risk, real security lies in the management of risk. We are safer today than we were 10 years ago precisely to the extent that we have learned to engage in the prudent management of risk, which enables us to focus our finite resources on the most serious threats. Yes, it is true that maintaining a free and interconnected society entails risk. But a society that is not engaged with its international partners runs a far greater risk, because such a society cannot be secure or competitive in today's world.

It is true that, in this post 9/11 world, increased security is a priority and a reality. But we should remind ourselves that our security must be balanced with our freedoms, civil liberties, and the flow of commerce. Political leaders like to respond to a threat by saying we need to close the threat even if it harms the longterm economic security and personal freedom of our citizens. It is not a question of increased security or totally open borders. And it is not a question of openness versus security. We have to ask: How can we maximize our security both by protecting ourselves from threats and by ensuring that we are a nation open to the international community? Those decisions are not easy, but there is no escape from them.

Unfortunately, our politics often make it difficult to ask this question. So great is the hold that our post-9/11 national security maxims have on us, that few in public life have the courage to help the public understand that we have to accept some risk that comes with a free and interconnected society now to avoid the much greater risk of national decline down the road. But 10 years out, it is time to start to ask ourselves what we know for sure that just ain't so.


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