Ten years can go by in a blink.
Ten years ago, we were just weeks away from invading Iraq to pursue Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction.
Ten years ago, a little-known state senator from Illinois (Barack Obama) was prepping to run for an open seat in the U.S. Senate.
Ten years ago, the Space Shuttle Columbia was in the final days of a nearly flawless two-week-long science mission that would end in a heartbreaking disaster.
And ten years ago, a man who resigned the governorship of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (a certainly safe and stable position) raised his right hand and swore an oath to lead and assemble a confederation of singular government units with separate missions to serve a singular one – protect the homeland. His name was Tom Ridge.
Ten years later, it would be hard to find mention of Iraq in a daily newspaper; Barack Obama has escaped his then anonymity to begin a second term as President of the United States; and the remaining space shuttles now longer fly but rather serve as museum relics across the country.
A lot can change in ten years. I can see it in my own kids, as well as in the mirror. Over the coming weeks, it is my hope that DHS begins to discuss with all of us what ten years of the homeland security means. It’s a discussion that was not as vibrant as it should have been when the Department was created. With the shadow and pains of 9/11, as well as the anthrax attacks still very fresh in congressional minds, the Bush Administration, and citizens, the Department was formed in what can only be called light-speed in Washington terms. It was drafted, debated and voted on in weeks rather than the traditional metric of months or even years. Many seem to want to acknowledge the Department’s start in March of 2003. Regardless of what day is officially circled on the calendar, for me and many others who were fortunate to be a part of DHS from its early days, its true start began with its first employee – Tom Ridge.
Gov. Ridge is a successful businessman, author, and the Chair of the National Security Task Force at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (where I am also VP for Research & Emerging Issues at the Forum for Innovation). Ten years ago, Gov. Ridge was the right person at the right time to bring the federal pieces into the DHS fence line and begin the process of stitching it together. His successors, Michael Chertoff and Janet Napolitano have built on what he started.
While the debate on DHS’ effectiveness and impact has not ebbed with time, success can be measured with one simple metric – the prevention and execution of a large scale terrorist event. By that metric, Ridge, Chertoff and Napolitano have been successful. Have there been individual actors that have caused terror and killing in places in the US; strikes by Mother Nature that have claimed lives and property and widespread destruction; and incidents and actions that have cost hundreds of millions of dollars? That answer is definitively YES, but magnitude of the 9/11 attacks has gone unmatched because of the efforts of DHS, federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement, international and intelligence partners, private sector allies, and engaged citizens.
That fact has received no coverage and zero mention this week as the country has celebrated the peaceful exchange/continuation of power in our nation’s government. When something bad doesn’t happen, we never seem to appreciate all of the things that went right to make sure things went OK. We sure know that when something bad does happen, the congressional, media pundit, armchair warriors and even citizens call for people’s careers to end and for some form of public humiliation reach epic and often extreme levels.
Fortunately, we don’t have that situation at this moment, but on a week that celebrates an Inauguration of a President, I think it’s worth saying “Thank you” to the one guy who ten years ago was the first person to step forward and say, “I will take that thankless job.” And thank you to every person after him that serves that mission today.
Thank you Gov. Ridge. We are all the better and safer for your service. It is something we should realize and remember more often.