By Robert Leitner
Terrorism will never be completely eradicated, according to a former secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security who spoke in the Cavalla Room on April 18.
The Hon. Tom Ridge, who is also a former governor of Pennsylvania, explained that terror is a fear tactic that homeland security deals with constantly.
“Combatting terrorism is a permanent condition in the world, I think forevermore,” he said. “Will we ever be able to eliminate the threat? Absolutely not, but we can deal with it in a serious and thoughtful way.”
This event coincided with the launch of Rider’s master of arts degree in homeland security that will give students a unique educational experience, pulling together a variety of resources and expertise on campus.
“After examining the curriculum, at first impression you see it’s an interdisciplinary approach because homeland security is not just combatting terrorism,” Ridge said. “There are many responsibilities for the department and most people never quite realize that.”
Ridge discussed how globalization has created a need for an agency to keep track of who enters and leaves the U.S. There were even studies before Sept. 11, 2001, that suggested such an organization was needed, according to Ridge.
“9/11 was the tragic impetus for us to think differently about a border monitoring agency,” Ridge said.
A few months after Ridge’s suggestion for the agency, President George W. Bush had legislation written to create such a group that could fulfill the task of homeland security.
“Originally, the department was 180,000 people, and people said, ‘Oh my God, you are creating a whole new department,’” said Ridge. “Yes, the department was new, but most of the employees had border-related responsibilities under different agencies.”
Recalling his time spent as secretary of homeland security, Ridge discussed analyzing a threat matrix — information from multiple sources about a wide range of potential threats against American interests.
“If you took every threat seriously, you couldn’t possibly do it because you didn’t have the manpower,” said Ridge. “The biggest challenge for the alphabet agencies is to take all of that white noise and narrow it down to focus it on those threats that seem real.”
America has two main borders to patrol, but Ridge made it clear that this geography doesn’t exclude the U.S. from problems overseas.
“Our borders are the last line of defense, and not the first,” he said. “The offense is special operations, the Marines and everybody outside the country. We want to mitigate and reduce the risk.”
Besides the borders and overseas issues, Ridge emphasized how the fast-paced growth of technology is creating another obstacle for homeland security.
“There is the economic hardship and the physical hardship that can be caused by a digital attack, and in more cases than not it can be more harmful than a physical attack,” he said.
Ben Sanders, a sophomore criminal justice major, agreed with Ridge’s outlook on technology and the government.
“I think it’s interesting to see how he brought up how fast technology is advancing and that the government can’t keep up with it,” Sanders said. “I don’t think that the government will be able to catch up with the speed that technology is advancing.”
According to Ridge, America has values that it has become known for, specifically referencing people’s right to privacy even as the government collects metadata.
“[The government] can protect you, but you don’t need to give away your freedoms to feel more secure,” he said. “I don’t like that the government knows my metadata. They don’t know the conversations I had, but they know I communicated with people, and that’s none of their business. If you want to know it, walk in with a search warrant.”
At the end of his speech, he recalled what he thought was important to keep in mind when he was secretary of homeland security.
“Our other mission was to make sure that whatever we did was consistent with the law and consistent with the Constitution, because they win when you start compromising your value system,” said Ridge. “The terrorists win when you alter how you live. We don’t live in fear in this country, we live in freedom.”