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Bin Laden Dies, Safety Concerns Rise

MICHEL MARTIN, host: This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

We continue our coverage of the death of Osama bin Laden. In a moment, we'll hear from family members of al-Qaida attack victims: a man who lost his brother on 9/11 at Ground Zero, a woman who lost both her father and brother in the August 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya.

But, first, citizens of the U.S. and of nations around the globe are hoping that Osama bin Laden's death will make the world safer. Let's listen to some reaction now from a leading Republican on Capitol Hill, Peter King of New York. He's the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

Representative PETER KING (Republican, New York): Let me give the president, President Obama, tremendous credit for this. He was the commander-in-chief. He's the one who authorized this operation. This whole situation began under President Bush. It was continued and now carried to a conclusion - very successful conclusion - by President Obama, and he deserves full credit.

MARTIN: Again, that was Congressman Peter King of New York, Republican of New York. But there are concerns that this may actually increase terror threats, as al-Qaida members and sympathizers look for ways to avenge his death. We wanted to talk more about that with Clark Kent Ervin. He served as the first inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, serving under President George W. Bush. He's now the director of Homeland Security at the Aspen Institute. That's a think tank with offices here in Washington, D.C. He was with us by phone from Capitol Hill. Welcome back. Thank you for joining us.

CLARK KENT ERVIN: It's my pleasure, Michel. Thank you.

MARTIN: So I understand that you're in a hallway somewhere on Capitol Hill, and so we thank you for that. Did you think this day would ever come?

ERVIN: Well, you know, of course I wanted this day to come, like all Americans, like all people around the world who believe in freedom and peace. But I must say, I really doubted that it would come anytime soon. You know, we were nearing the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and the thought that this most wanted man in the world would still not be caught all these many years later gave reason for skepticism that we would ever do so.

So as Peter King said in the spirit of bipartisanship that we should certainly observe today, President Obama and his team deserve tremendous credit for this. It's a huge, huge tactical - key word - victory in the war against terrorists.

MARTIN: Now, on my way into work today in Washington, D.C., I observed a heightened security presence, you know, a visible security presence. But is there a broader plan for this? You know, we've heard officials immediately, you know, warning that there is the possibility of retaliatory attacks. Is this potential - is there a plan for this?

ERVIN: Well, there certainly is the potential for this, and that's why I stress the word tactical. I think the question for the coming weeks and months, and for that matter, years, will be whether this really is a strategic victory in the war on terrorism - meaning that, of course, there will always be one-off terror attacks here and there. To some degree, terrorism will always be with us, like poverty and like disease.

Or will it so inflame the Muslim radicals around the world that they will redouble their efforts to strike the United States and our allies around the world? That certainly is the short-term concern that the United States government is focused on, and appropriately so. It seems to me that they will do everything in their power to strike back at the United States and show that al-Qaida is no longer - or is not a paper tiger.

MARTIN: Now, in the past, one of the things that you've talked with us about - and, of course, with others about - is your concern that potential targets such as shipping ports or mass transit systems have not been adequately secured, even 10 years after 9/11. Do you continue to have those concerns?

ERVIN: I do have those concerns, Michel. There's no question but that we've made progress since 9/11 in shoring up the aviation sector, certainly, and doing other things to protect ourselves against terrorism. But we haven't done as much as we could do or should do, it seems to me. You mentioned ports. I've been very concerned, for example, about the potential for terrorists to somehow struggle a weapon of mass destruction, a nuclear weapon into the United States aboard one of these 11 or 12 million cargo containers that comes into our shores every year.

And now with the death of bin Laden and the notion that al-Qaida is back on its heels, it seems to me, as I say, that there's every incentive on al-Qaida's part to try to activate plans like that. So this is a very, very tense time. It's certainly a time for jubilation, needless to say. But it's also a time for increased vigilance.

MARTIN: And, finally, Clark, before we let you go - and thank you for taking the time on a busy day like this - many people will say, what can I do? Is there anything I, as an individual citizen, can do at a delicate time like this? What do you say?

ERVIN: Well, I say two things. One, Secretary Napolitano has quite rightly stressed her See Something, Say Something campaign. You know, the public has to be the eyes and ears of law enforcement and intelligence officials in this country. It's a huge country, lots of vulnerabilities, an open society. Our law enforcement personnel, intelligence personnel, military personnel can't be everywhere. So that's the key thing.

And then secondly, I think that every American needs to make it clear that we are at war not against Islam, but against those who pervert Islam in the name of terrorism. I think those are two critical ways in which every American can play a role.

MARTIN: Clark Kent Ervin is the director of the Homeland Security program at the Aspen Institute. He's the former inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, and he joined us by phone from Capitol Hill here in Washington, D.C. Clark Kent Ervin, thank you so much for joining us.

ERVIN: It's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.