'Security Mom' Juliette Kayyem On Keeping The Home(land) Safe

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With every major disaster in America – whether a terrorist attack or a hurricane – the government must find a way to cope and help Americans bounce back. But disasters also have an impact on individuals and families.

Juliette Kayyem is a former Undersecretary of Homeland Security and the author of “Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland and Your Home."

She speaks with Here & Now's Robin Young about the lessons she learned after 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the Boston Marathon Bombing – both at the office and at home.

Book Excerpt: Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland and Your Home

I STARED AT THE TRAFFIC LIGHT. RED. THE RADIO WAS OFF—NONE OF THOSE TOP 40 tunes I blasted even when the kids had left the car. Instead, I listened to the low thrum of the motor, the echoes of sirens, the lub-dub of my heart. It was nearing midnight on Thursday, April 18, 2013, the rhythm of a surreal week in Boston moving closer to a weekend that promised no relief: multiple bombings on Monday; police, FBI agents, reporters, and news teams a mile from our house for days; a nation descended into grief and fear; a global investigation of two men who turned out to be our neighbors.

My kids—Cecilia, Leo, and Jeremiah—were home. Their April break vacation had been canceled, because Mom’s job was . . . what, exactly? I was no longer in government, no longer the state’s—this Commonwealth of Massachusetts’s—homeland security advisor, now a senior appointee in the Obama administration at the Department of Homeland Security. I had no actual responsibility except, after answering a call from a friend at CNN (“Is this Juliette? Where are you? Can you get to Commonwealth Avenue?”), to explain to others what I knew, since those bombs went off at the very marathon I had worked so hard to secure years before.

As a homeland security and counterterrorism expert, I have learned to compartmentalize the despair that follows disaster. My role isn’t to feel too much—though I so often do—but to plan, and prepare, and respond to whatever mayhem, as it always does, has arrived.

But this—this act of terror—hit close to home. My son, playing outside that day, heard the explosion. Later that night, helicopters hovering over our house kept us awake, as if we could even think of sleep. I still had a panicked voice message on my phone from a friend who crossed the finish line two minutes before the bombs went off, who then spent another endless twenty-three minutes searching for her husband and two children.

That Thursday, I spent all day on the air. At five p.m., the FBI released images of the men they suspected were the terrorists, but they had no more evidence and asked the public for help with identification. Who were they? Someone must know.

It turned out that the Tsarnaev brothers were not strangers to this city. They lived down the street from us. They had attended my kids’ school. They visited a mosque that we passed every day. Had we seen them at the market once or twice? Those brothers fit so easily into our eclectic Cambridge neighborhood—as did we, as did so many others from around the globe seeking the acceptance of this progressive enclave in the shadows of Harvard and MIT.

But no one knew any of this that Thursday night. So I left the makeshift CNN bureau near the marathon finish line a few hours after the FBI made their request. I retrieved my car from the hotel where every newscaster had set up—and where groupies came to take photos of Anderson Cooper or Chris Cuomo—and drove home toward Cambridge. It was then, just a hundred feet from my highway exit, on an almost empty road, that I could feel—before I heard—the rush of police cars come up on me from behind: one, two, three, then maybe forty cop cars passing me and driving toward Watertown. Something was happening. I pulled over, not needing instruction, as I watched them—one after another after another—head somewhere down the road. Then total silence again, like an elephant stampede that leaves nothing in its wake. I waited by the side of the road, hoping for the “all clear”—the public safety lingo that had become part of my life—but none ever came.

I just waited, at a complete standstill on the highway. I could just as easily have been parked. My cell phone rang. It was David, my husband, calling.

I imagined David was pacing in the downstairs kitchen of our home. I couldn’t help but wonder if the kids could sleep through all the noise. At ages eleven, nine, and seven, Cecilia, Leo, and Jeremiah were no longer climbing into our bed when they had bad dreams, but this had to affect them, I knew. It certainly affected every adult. David, worried, wanted to know when I was getting home. Now seemed like a pretty good time, I thought.

I started the car, inched I started the car, inched slowly toward the exit and through the tollbooth, and waited for the light at the end of the ramp to turn green. My cell phone rang again. I saw the familiar 404 area code on my screen: an Atlanta number. “Can you come back?” my handler—every profession has its own code words—from CNN asked, explaining they were setting up to go live on air again. A massive search appeared to be underway, she said with a hint of excitement about what was about to unfold. I didn’t feel any of her adrenaline rush; I had witnessed the beginning of the chase here on the highway, and was too tired from all that the brothers had unleashed in such proximity to my home. Producers wanted me in the makeshift studio in full expert mode, ready to discuss the lessons I had learned from my career in counterterrorism and disaster response, a career that began well before September 11, 2001.

So I was at a stoplight, but also a crossroads. Go straight and I would arrive home. Turn right onto Storrow Drive and I would return to CNN, back downtown, where I would analyze and assess the unfolding response to yet another crisis in our homeland. The scenario was disturbingly familiar.

The light turned green, and the way forward was obvious. The homeland could wait.

From “Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland and Your Home,” by Juliette Kayyem. Copyright ©2016 by Juliette Kayyem. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.


This segment aired on April 5, 2016.


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