“Sept. 11 turned the ship around,” Cid said. “There's something about the deaths of 3,000 people that really clarifies your thinking.”
Since the 2001 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, some 40 terrorist plots have been thwarted, according to the conservative think-tank The Heritage Foundation.
These plots include the so-called shoe bomber, Richard Reid, and the liquid explosives plot of 2006 intended to blow up 10 U.S. bound commercial airliners traveling from overseas.
After 9/11, it was clear the federal government alone couldn't prevent terrorism. Local law enforcement became more involved in the gathering of information. So did the public.
“If you're in law enforcement today, you have counterterrorism responsibilities on some level,” Cid said.
Fusion centers appear
About 40 fusion centers — where local, regional and federal law enforcement share information — have sprung up throughout the country, Ricks said.
“They disseminate information throughout the law enforcement community, not just about terrorism, but about other law enforcement issues as well,” he said.
Alongside this change, the “If You See Something, Say Something Campaign” rolled out, asking citizens to report suspicious behavior to authorities.
But the streamlining and cooperation is far from perfect. The intelligence system as a whole is overly bureaucratic, Ricks said. This makes it difficult for it to change and respond quickly. Also, many people who aren't involved in intelligence gathering can see important information that should be closely guarded.
“The net effect is you don't have any secrets in that area; it's considered a success sometimes to share information. We want info going to people who need the information, not to people who have an idle curiosity.”
There persists a view that those who would attack the U.S. are religious zealots, from poverty-stricken areas with totalitarian rule, and are uneducated or have no hope. Often this translates into a fear of religious or ethnic groups, a conception that overlooks terrorism's broader dynamics.
Cid said there is only one universal attribute among terrorists:
“There is a personal grievance of some kind,” Cid said. “And this grievance they have to them justifies killing other people. That's the common denominator among all terrorists.”
Ricks and Cid said it's important that individuals don't become complacent and forget there is a threat. Yet it's vital to go about one's everyday life.
“I just hope we don't lose that vigilance and another terrible thing happens,” Ricks said.
It's the first obligation of a government to protect its citizens, Cid said. “We should, as a people, accept that the threat from terrorism will never be gone.”
At the same time, the debate should continue about what are acceptable levels of security.
“You can't have absolute liberty or privacy and security,” Cid said. “There has to be a balance.”