— CHDS Essay Contest (First Annual) —

Reducing the Risk

Matthew Allen

The effective use of rhetoric in communicating public policy cannot be overstated. In democratic governments, elected officials must be able to accurately and (equally as important) concisely convey their actions in a way that explains both the problem and solution. Since the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, the department's mission has sometimes been difficult to understand.  What the government is doing to protect its citizens from terrorism, and how the government is doing it, is something few people can articulate.  Not until recently has the administration found the proper rhetorical tools that explain both the challenges the nation faces with respect to terrorism and how the government is addressing those challenges. As will be shown below, the concept of “reducing the risk,” more than any other aspect of homeland security policy, will be critical in guiding the actions of policy makers for years to come. 

The Importance of Rhetoric

Rhetoric can be defined as the art of speaking or writing effectively or the use of speaking and writing as a form of persuasion. In this paper, the term rhetoric (and rhetorical phrase) describes the use of language to communicate a challenge faced by the nation and the means of meeting that challenge.

When the nation is threatened by ideological opposition, it is often rhetorical arguments, in the form of catch phrases, that galvanize the public in support of a common goal.  Although these rhetorical phrases can be sweeping generalizations and may provide few specifics (if any) as to how opposition can be overcome, such phrases are useful in communicating to the public challenges faced by the nation.

In February of 1861, Jefferson Davis was elected provisional president of the Confederate States of America. On April 12th of the same year, Fort Sumter was attacked and destroyed by Confederate forces – thus beginning the Civil War. To prepare the nation for war, President Lincoln called a special session of Congress on July 4, 1861.  In his statement to the Senate and House of Representatives, he asked the Congress to legitimize his recent call-up of troops, his blockade of the ports of secessionist states, and his suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. Lincoln’s justification for becoming the most centralized president in history was his perception that the president had a constitutional duty to “preserve the union.” This rhetorical statement was direct and to the point. It described the struggle against secession in a way the American people, the Congress, and the United States courts could easily understand and support.

The Cold War represented a similar ideological challenge. George Keenan's 1947 paper, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” gave a very detailed analysis of the factors influencing Russian, Communist, and Soviet thinking of the time.  However, the message many policy makers took away from his now famous paper was the following sentence:

In these circumstances it is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies. 1

Much to the author’s surprise, this concept of “containment” became the foundation of diplomatic, economic, and military policy toward communist countries for the next forty years. 2

Why did this happen? Why was this one sentence interpreted so broadly?  The answer is quite simple: It was excellent rhetoric. Much like Lincoln’s mission to “preserve the union,” Keenan’s concept of containment was direct and to the point.  With that one word, policy makers could explain both the problem (in this case Russian expansive tendencies) and the solution: containment. This rhetoric provided a simple framework to counter communism, an ideology that was difficult for most people to understand. For forty years, government actions were measured by their success in containing the communist threat.

The modern ideological challenge to the United States (and the rest of the Western world) is that of radical Islam. How do we counter this ideologically driven opponent with no well-defined geographical base or known constituency? 

At a recent Congressional hearing, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff was asked to summarize his strategy for dealing with terrorists. He answered, “In a nutshell it’s: reduce risk... And we do it by looking at all the elements in the chain of risk.” 3 This clear and concise statement described a framework for the Department of Homeland Security’s enduring mission. The simple statement, reducing the risk, describes both the problem (we are at risk) and the solution: we must work to reduce this risk. This concept of reducing the risk, more than any other aspect of homeland security policy, has succeeded in communicating the challenges we face; reducing the risk will continue to be the most critical aspect in shaping of homeland security policy.

The Formalism of Risk

While the rhetorical statement, reducing the risk, may be simple, the definition of risk (at first glance) may appear difficult. The formulation of risk is not new or rare in either the private or public sectors. Engineers, economists, political analysis, and public health professionals all employ some method of risk analysis in their decision-making processes. Academics have made an industry out of quantifying risk and adding contributing factors to risk equations. 

Fortunately, although every field’s understanding of risk may be slightly different, the meaning of risk vis-à-vis homeland security can be described by three fundamental factors: threat, vulnerability, and consequence. What is more, risk is the product of these terms not the sum. If any one of them is zero then the risk is zero. 4 Likewise, if any of the terms is much greater than the others, it can drive the risk higher even when the other terms may be small. 

Taken together, these three factors describe – either qualitatively or quantitatively when possible – our nation’s risk with regard to terrorism. In the following sections, each of these terms is discussed in relation to their influence on terrorism risk assessment.


In the post-9/11 world, it is common to hear talk regarding the “probability” of terrorism. Probability, however, is best suited for naturally occurring phenomena such as lightning strikes, hurricanes, and rain. The more relevant term for homeland security purposes is the threat of terrorism, where threat is a combination of intent and capability.

The role intent plays in threat assessment can be illustrated by a comparison of two homes.  On the one hand, there is my mother’s home in a small town in western Pennsylvania. Although al-Qa’ida may be capable of blowing up her home, they have (as far as I know) no intent to do so. On the other hand, there is my apartment in Washington, DC, conveniently located between the U.S. Capitol Building and the White House. While I doubt Osama Bin Laden has my name on his list of targets, my apartment's proximity to other targets increases the risk to my home. Terrorist capability is the same in both cases, but terrorist intent to cause destruction is understandably higher in Washington, DC. than it is in a small town in western Pennsylvania.

Capability can be explained in a similar manner. The threat of an improvised explosive device (IED) such as those used in Iraq or Afghanistan is obviously higher than that of an improvised nuclear device (IND). Although al-Qa’ida has stated their intent to acquire and use nuclear devices, they are simply not as capable of acquiring INDs as they are of acquiring IEDs. This makes the threat of nuclear terrorism low as compared to the threat of terrorism by conventional explosives. Does this mean the risk of nuclear terrorism is low? Certainly not –keep reading.


When some people think of vulnerabilities, they think of the impact a terrorist strike would have on components of our critical infrastructure or key resources.  Vulnerability of targets depends on such factors as target hardness or single-point failures, as well as redundancy and reconstitution capability. A target’s hardness refers to the ease or difficulty with which a terrorist attack could be effectively accomplished. A critical facility with a firm structure and guards at the entrance is harder to attack than one with multiple points of access and no guards at the door.

Some systems are vulnerable due to single-point failures. Our nation’s aging electrical grid is a prime example. In August of 2003, the shutdown of one power plant in Northern Ohio caused an electrical blackout throughout much of the American Northeast. Single-point failures are also common in transit systems and production facilities. It is the wide-spread nature of this problem that makes it such a great vulnerability. Options for mitigating single-point failures are built-in redundancy and the ability to reconstitute a capability if it were lost.  Alternatively, the absence of redundancy and reconstitution capability is a further vulnerability.


Consequence is the one risk factor that — with a few assumptions – can be quantified  A successful terrorist attack would result in the loss of life and/or property – both things that are relatively easy to correlate with geographical regions. This allows us to compare the consequence of different types of terrorist attacks and the consequence of similar attacks at different locations. A powerful car bomb, for example, would have different levels of consequence in a small town in western Pennsylvania than the same size bomb would have in New York City. Although the destructive force of the bomb might be similar, a successful attack in New York City – with the highest population density in the country and the nation's third largest economy – would have much higher consequence.

Quantifying consequence in this way also allows us to rank the risk of various forms of attack. Weapons that claim many lives and destroy a lot of property naturally have greater consequence. This is what drives the risk of nuclear terrorism. As discussed above, the threat of nuclear terrorism may be low, but the consequence of the successful detonation of a nuclear device in an urban area would be catastrophic, resulting in thousands of fatalities and tens of billions of dollars in damage. This level of catastrophic consequence is what makes the risk of nuclear terrorism high, even though the threat may be low.

It is also important to note that consequence is the summation (not the product) of loss of life and property. It is possible to imagine a terrorist attack that claims only life and leaves infrastructure intact (such as the Sarin gas attacks in Tokyo's subway in 1995) or an attack that claims no lives but has dire economic consequences (such as the detonation of a dirty bomb) by disrupting service or denying access to critical infrastructure.

Utilizing Rhetoric

With the above formalism, we have answered the question of how to confront the ideological threat of terrorism: by reducing the risk. However, this is not enough.  While rhetoric is an effective means of galvanizing the public, rhetoric alone is not sufficient to indefinitely sustain public support. Public support can only maintained by implementing effective policy that is accompanied by demonstrable success. 

The next logical question we must ask is: how do we measure success? Surely, no one believes that the risk of terrorism can ever be reduced to zero. Even the current administration feels we will never reach a terrorism-free environment. The National Strategy for Homeland Security states:

Recognizing that the future is uncertain and that we cannot envision or prepare for every potential threat, we must understand and accept a certain level of risk as a permanent condition. 5

If we must accept a “certain level of risk as a permanent condition,” how can we tell if reducing the risk is an effective strategy? Will we know when we’ve reduced risk to the proper level?

In a recent paper, Philip Gordon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, described what is and is not required to win the War on Terror. He argues that rather than concentrating on every possible threat, the government should concentrate on reducing the risk of terrorism. He even suggests the acceptable level of risk that policy makers should strive to attain:

[Winning the War on Terror] will mean not the complete elimination of any possible terrorist threat...but rather the reduction of the risk of terrorism to such a level that it does not significantly affect average citizens’ daily lives, preoccupy their thoughts, or provoke overreaction.  At that point, even the terrorists will realize their violence is futile. 6

According to Gordon, success is attained when the risk of terrorism has been reduced to such a level that it does not “significantly affect average citizens’ daily lives, preoccupy their thoughts, or provoke overreaction.” If lack of overreaction is an indicator, we must be having some success at reducing the risk. After all, we haven’t had a run on duct tape since 2003! 

Although the rhetorical phrase of reducing the risk has only recently made its appearance, the Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to accomplish this goal have been ongoing for the past six years. What makes the rhetoric so important is the ability it gives policy makers to answer the question: Are we safer today than we were six years ago?  The answer is a resounding yes. Over the past six years, the government has limited terrorists’ capability to harm us, thereby reducing the threat. They have worked to reduce our vulnerability by hardening targets and increasing the resiliency of our critical infrastructure. They have worked to mitigate consequence by acquiring medical countermeasures against biological, chemical, and radiological agents of terrorism.

All of these successes have been achieved through the government’s operations to deter, detect, and disrupt terrorist activity along with implementing procedures for response to and recovery from successful terrorist attacks. Of course, people have made an industry of adding terms to this methodology, but all of these tactics play their role in reducing single or multiple factors in the risk equation. 

The risk of terrorism will occupy the minds of our leaders far into the foreseeable future. Homeland Security’s enduring mission of reducing the risk should guide policy makers in every aspect of their decisions on how to confront this challenge. The same concept should be used to measure success of government actions and policy implementation. Just as Keenan's philosophy of containment galvanized the Western world throughout the Cold War, the concept of “reducing the risk” will help Americans understand both the challenge and the solution for as long as terrorism dominates the political landscape.

Matthew Allen is a scientist at Sandia National Laboratories.  He is currently serving as an ASME Congressional Fellow at the Committee on Homeland Security, House of Representatives. The views of Matthew Allen do not necessarily reflect the views of any member or committee of Congress. Mr. Allen can be contacted at mallen@sandia.gov.

  1. George F. Kennan (published under the name “X”), “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” Foreign Affairs 25, no. 4 (July 1947).
  2. George F. Kennan, “CONTAINMENT: 40 Years Later: Containment Then and Now,” Foreign Affairs 65, no. 4 (Spring 1987).
  3. United States Congress, House of Representatives, Full Committee Hearing, Committee on Homeland Security, 110th Cong., Sess. 1 (Wednesday, September 5, 2007).
  4. Henry Kissinger used a similar formalism in his early work on nuclear deterrence. Henry Kissinger, Necessity For Choice: Prospects of American Foreign Policy (New York: Doubleday/Anchor, 1961), 12.
  5. Homeland Security Council, National Strategy for Homeland Security (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, October 2007), 25.
  6. Philip H. Gordon, “Can the War on Terror Be Won?” Foreign Affairs 86, no. 6 (November/December 2007): 54.

Copyright © 2008 by the author(s). Homeland Security Affairs is an academic journal available free of charge to individuals and institutions. Because the purpose of this publication is the widest possible dissemination of knowledge, copies of this journal and the articles contained herein may be printed or downloaded and redistributed for personal, research or educational purposes free of charge and without permission. Any commercial use of Homeland Security Affairs or the articles published herein is expressly prohibited without the written consent of the copyright holder. The copyright of all articles published in Homeland Security Affairs rests with the author(s) of the article. Homeland Security Affairs is the online journal of the Naval Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security (CHDS). http://www.hsaj.org