When I began working at the Department of Homeland Security in 2009 there were left-over posters lying around showing DHS employees or officials pictured above the bolded words, “We Secure America.” These agency-printed materials are a staple across the federal government. But that particular phrase seemed a bit off to me, and became more inaccurate as I better understood the many ways DHS worked to help individuals and communities make themselves more secure. We often said that “homeland security begins with hometown security,” and we meant it.
Since the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina – the two formative events for the department – DHS has helped to dramatically improve the ability of localities to understand the risks they face from terrorism, cyber attacks, or natural disasters; take smart steps to reduce those risks; and bounce back quickly when something bad happens. Notwithstanding the inevitable missteps and mini-scandals that happen when you distribute several billion dollars of equipment and training to thousands of cities and towns nationwide, this has been a wise investment.
But just like the two-thousand mile border wall, or additional weapons programs the military doesn’t even want, the Trump Administration prizes “hard power” over the supposedly “soft” investments in security, such as capacity building, development assistance, and even diplomacy itself. President Trump’s 2018 budget proposal cuts FEMA grants – the primary mechanism by which DHS supports state and local preparedness and response efforts – by $667 million. Meeting with Congressional Democrats last week, DHS Secretary Kelly defended this heavy-handed approach by saying he has a “different philosophical” approach than his predecessor, Jeh Johnson.
That statement looks to be both true and foolhardy at the same time. This isn’t just more Trump administration faux-tough posturing. It’s bad policy that will cost American lives, and waste countless resources, when the inevitable disasters strike. More than a quarter million men and women at DHS do more than their fair share to secure America every day. But they achieve that mission with the active involvement of millions of Americans who help to prepare their families and communities to respond to, and recover from a disaster of any kind. From first responders to Community Emergency Response Team volunteers to urban police forces, security is a shared responsibility. Before it’s too late, the Trump administration should realize homeland security doesn’t begin with a border wall or mass expulsion of undocumented immigrants. It begins with hometown security.