“When I think about what makes a safe city, it’s essentially one that is both welcoming and secure,” says Juliette Kayyem. “And these aren’t incompatible in my mind, but they are choices that have to be made. Cities are about an acceptable level of risk, so don’t be surprised that things aren’t perfect.”
Juliette, who has spent time as a civil-rights attorney, an advisor to President Barack Obama and the assistant secretary of intergovernmental affairs at the Department of Homeland Security – acting as point person for every governor and mayor’s office to keep the United States more safe and more secure – is a firm believer that “stuff happens”. “Over the course of 9/11 and the whole apparatus that was set up after, we made citizens dumb. They didn’t make themselves dumb. We said, ‘We can provide perfect securit, we can get those terrorists, never again’ – all this stuff. I’ve gone from someone who said ‘never again’ to realizing that we’re built unsafe. We’ve chosen that.”
The modern world is entirely about flow: the flow of people, the flow of goods and the flow of ideas. “In a world like ours, you’re never going to have perfect security,” says Juliette. “We have modern transit systems that are inherently not safe. You cannot have a global city with a transit system that has the same kind of security as an airport. It’s impossible. So every day we’re accepting a level of risk, because we’re balancing flow with security.”
Supporting flow can be achieved through smarter citizenry, says Juliette, which isn’t as complicated as some would make out. “The attributes of smarter citizens are the same attributes we know from being parents, or children or friends. It’s backup systems, it’s preparedness and planning, it’s the capacity to pivot.” It’s about an honest acceptance of the fact that there is a risk attached to where we live and go to school and work.
“I just did something on CNN for the Super Bowl, and my opening line was, ‘If you want to have a perfectly safe Super Bowl, don’t have a Super Bowl.’ That’s the only way. When you’re doing a mega-event, it cuts across private-public, and technology and communications are always a challenge. During the Super Bowl in New Orleans, for instance, in what I think was the third quarter, the lights went out in half of the stadium. Some people were horrified, but one way to look at that, as people like me do, is, well, it’s better than the whole stadium in darkness. What they had built into the system – and what I have spoken to people about who build for these mega-events – was a fail-safe mechanism that would cut off the impact of outage at the halfway point.”
Juliette believes it’s the obligation of government, planners and the private sector to reduce the risk to cities and countries even while knowing that they’ll never get to zero. “Stuff happens,” she says, “be it a terrorist threat, a hurricane, climate change, a disease or an oil spill, but you can make people feel less vulnerable by the capacity of a city to respond, react, rebuild and then become more resilient. That is actually how you judge a safe city.”
The terrorism expert’s approach to keeping cities safe is fluid. It’s about an acceptable level of risk