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Missions Matter

Janet Napolitano takes stock of the nation’s youngest cabinet department

”Missions matter,” writes Janet Napolitano in How Safe Are We?, a forcefully concise account of her experience as Secretary of Homeland Security during the Obama administration. The book takes stock of the mission of the nation’s youngest, most expansive, and perhaps most complex and critical cabinet department.

Photo: University of California

Conceived in the aftermath of 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security’s mission continues to evolve, more rapidly in recent years, as the country faces new challenges. Napolitano addresses the threats of foreign and domestic terrorism, ineffective border security, and natural disasters, among other issues. Her central theme is the need for a unified commitment to security at every level of American life, from the White House to the common citizenry. “We can and must restore our sense of common purpose,” she writes.

Napolitano frames her assessment of DHS through her experiences both prior to and during her time as secretary. How Safe Are We? is not a memoir, however; in Napolitano’s own words, the book means to be an “American report card” evaluating the successes and failures of DHS and its changing agenda. At the forefront of her assessment is the need for private citizens to recognize their role in addressing threats on many fronts, from cyberspace to the environment. “Americans’ expectations have grown over the years, driving the perception that the federal government rather than the individual or the community is responsible for leading disaster response,” Napolitano writes. She describes the development of these expectations, from the Eisenhower administration, when the president monitored federal disaster response from the White House, to the present day, when public opinions on the effectiveness of federal response are often influenced by how swiftly the President arrives on the scene and how his appearances come across in the news media.

It should come as no surprise that a former Obama administration official would offer a fairly scathing assessment of DHS under President Trump. She reserves her sharpest barbs for the handling of border security, an issue especially sensitive to Napolitano, who grew up and began her career in public service in New Mexico and later served as Governor of Arizona. ”I know from personal experience that the southern border, despite conventional rhetoric, is not and never will be a neat, impenetrable line of demarcation,” she writes. “Anyone from a border state who grew up with this reality — regardless of political party — has a different understanding of the facts on the ground than do the many politicians and talking heads who claim expertise.” But Napolitano does not spare herself or the Obama administration in assessing her own tenure, particularly on the issue of domestic terrorism, as DHS struggled to manage the tension over the 2nd Amendment and the reality that many domestic terrorists get their weapons and demolition training as members of the armed forces.

The threats delineated in How Safe Are We? are enough to make any reader frightened to leave the house. Cyber-terrorism, mass shootings, the border and immigration crises, and perhaps above all the looming threat of climate change — any one of these could potentially destabilize our entire country. Despite this sobering reality, Napolitano offers hope in the form of faith born out of experience. “I watched as the United States stood itself back up after 9/11,” she writes. “We are resilient and resourceful. We should have no doubt in ourselves, and neither should our adversaries doubt our capabilities to build a safe, secure, and resilient place, where the American way of life can thrive.”

Missions Matter

Ed Tarkington’s debut novel, Only Love Can Break Your Heart, was published by Algonquin Books in 2016. He lives in Nashville.