10/06/2011 11:48 am ET | Updated Dec 06, 2011

Strength and Security Through an Engaged, Resilient Public

This post was co-written with Richard Ben-Veniste, William Bratton, P.J. Crowley, Suzanne Spaulding and Juan Zarate.

Ten years ago, ordinary citizens armed with information from cell phones prevented the terrorists from reaching their target. Other individuals, aided by courageous firefighters and other first responders, evacuated thousands of people from the Twin Towers. And in the hours and days following those horrific attacks, neighbors of all faiths came together in vigils at mosques to remind Americans not to succumb to terrorists' efforts to divide our nation. In the years since, there have been many examples of the vital role of engaged individuals in ensuring this country's strength, security, and essential resilience. A decade after 9/11, civic engagement has become a key cornerstone of the homeland security enterprise.

Accordingly, the Department of Homeland Security should lead a newly-focused Civic Engagement Initiative that calls on individuals, communities, organizations, and companies to be full partners in the national and collective endeavor of homeland security across the broad range of natural and man-made threats. Unity in the face of disaster has always been a source of America's strength and an essential element of our national resilience. Communities rebuilding after Hurricane Irene, the oil spill and Katrina in the Gulf, and the flooding in the Midwest affirm our determination and ability to prevail in the face of tragedy.

Public officials can promote resilience with regard to terrorism by reminding us that terrorists succeed -- even with failed attempts -- if they are able to create havoc and sow dissension within the societies they target. The best weapon against terror is refusing to be terrorized.

Reminding the public and policymakers that homeland security is an exercise in risk management, rather than risk elimination, will also help build resilience and mitigate shocks to the system. Americans intuitively understand that there can be no guarantee of 100% security. Public officials need to openly acknowledge this reality.

Around the tenth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks, with intelligence adding to heightened security concerns, Americans were frequently reminded through the see something, say something initiative of their essential role in mitigating the risk of another attack. This program vastly expands the eyes and ears of police and other public safety officers throughout the United States. At the same time, DHS must continue to work to avoid creating a climate of spying that can breed mistrust and prove counter-productive. "See something, say something" is a memorable slogan but without greater guidance on the kinds of activities or behaviors that rise to the level of legitimate concern, there is a risk that some members of the public will substitute "suspicious appearance" for "suspicious behavior."

DHS also must promote the concept of a "two-way street" between the public and law enforcement authorities. There should be feedback and closure -- assuring those who volunteer information that it has been reviewed and, where appropriate, acted upon. Equally important, those at the local level who are charged with evaluating and responding to such information should be trained and empowered to separate the wheat from the chaff, rather than pushing everything forward in an effort to avoid risk. Information that does not pan out should not be retained.

Eliminating the national color-coded alert system in favor of a new, more focused alert system providing useful public safety information to those who are most directly affected is a good example of DHS's commitment to effective civic empowerment through information. Providing citizens with more specific information about threats not only eliminates the anxiety that comes from vague notices but also allows communities and individuals to feel empowered to prepare and respond to man-made and natural disasters. Among the areas for expansion of this information-based public outreach are training citizens to respond to emergencies within their communities and targeted community efforts aimed at countering violent extremism.

Civic engagement must also include the private sector -- including communities, NGOs, and companies. Business plays a key role in securing systems critical to U.S. security, like the digital backbone and the energy grid. The private sector is also an essential partner in preparing for and responding to homeland security events, including economic and social recovery. As with individuals, key to empowering the private sector is providing information on the nature of the threats, government plans for response, and the role and resources for the private sector.

DHS should establish a Civic Engagement Award to recognize those individuals and entities that heed the call to do what they can to ensure the strength and security of their community, across the broad spectrum of homeland security challenges, through community building, personal vigilance, disaster response, and even cybersecurity awareness.

Civic engagement gave birth to this country and guided it through serious challenges throughout its history. Whether confronting natural disasters or the terrorist threat, communities that come together to prepare and respond to challenges are a fundamental source of our nation's strength. A new Civic Engagement Initiative should build on this natural national resilience and broad sense of ownership, reminding the public of the key role they play and empowering them to rise to the challenge once again.