Ridge Urges Vigilance

November 23, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Former Homeland Security Adviser Tom Ridge says that America has to take the lead in managing the international insurgency within the Muslim community. The world is going to have to deal with that issue for a generation or two. And to lead the war on terror, America needs the support of the rest of the civilized world, Ridge told attendees of a Fifth Third Bank-sponsored luncheon at
DeVos Place
Nov. 15.

The entire world has an interest in dealing with the conditions that create very fertile recruiting grounds for Islamic jihads, he said.

"What's needed is an international response to an international scourge. We have to understand that for a generation and a half or two, there have been schools in various parts of the world that teach and preach an ideology of hate. It's a perverted interpretation of the Koran, but we have seen that there are true believers."

Ridge noted that almost a quarter of the world's population is Muslim, but that only a very, very small segment of that population has adopted that ideology.

People are going to have to accept "the reality of a possibility" of another attack, he said, as well as accept the reality that the risk can only be managed, not eliminated. He recalled the nuclear threat of the 1970s and 1980s — a very real threat that was sustained over nearly two generations.

"What did we say to ourselves as a country?" he asked. "We said, 'Let's get on with being America and let the professionals deal with that threat.' And in that time period we built the greatest, most diversified and strongest economy in the history of the world and raised our standard of living to a level we've never experienced before and may never experience again. The bottom line is that you accept the threat as a norm."

Ridge, a former two-term governor of Pennsylvania, Vietnam veteran and former assistant district attorney for Erie County, Pa., was sworn in as the nation's first Homeland Security chief on Oct. 8, 2001, less than a month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

His job was to create a national strategy for homeland security. He underscored that what he created was a national, not federal strategy.

"You can't secure the country from Washington, D.C. You have to take advantage of the capacity of state government, local government and the private sector in order to build robust mechanisms to deter and predict and also respond and recover from a terrorist attack."

He built the Office of Homeland Security by pulling together more than 20 different groups and slices of different agencies, forming an agency that employed 170,000 people. He recalled it as "a very vast and compressed transition." Ridge resigned from the Homeland Security post on Feb. 1 this year.

Ridge said the whole country should be integrated into management of the threat risk,  including local government, state government and the private sector. The private sector, he noted, must be engaged in the effort as aggressively as possible.

One sector of the economy that did something about security and safety long before 9/11 was the financial sector because of concerns about access, background checks and cyber attacks. That sector had already embedded many security measures prior to 9/11 that the fledging Office of Homeland Security was able to duplicate and adapt for its own use, he pointed out.

America's future, in terms of reducing risk, will involve more technology; the nation's creative talent and its entrepreneurial capitalist system will generate those solutions, Ridge said.

"In the process of going down that path, we're going to find that some of these innovations have applications elsewhere to make us not only safer and more secure but healthier and potentially more productive."

America's future also will require much greater collaboration with foreign allies, as well as integrated information sharing among national, state and local governmental units. Ridge believes the future will require taking some of the capacity out of Washington and regionalizing it, so that people working in disaster preparedness training are ready and mobilized long before a natural weather disaster or a terrorist attack occurs.

With the threat of terror, along with the challenge of illegal immigration across U.S. borders, Americans will have to wrestle with the notion of a national ID card and the privacy vs. security issue such a card would entail. Ridge sees the country moving in the direction of biometrics for identity verification — technical devices that provide biological identification of a person via a scan of the person's eyes, voice, handprint, fingerprint or hand-written signature.

Despite the challenges ahead, Ridge said he's confident of America's ability to live in freedom, not in fear.

"That's why I think the free world will ultimately prevail over terrorists," he concluded.    

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