Keeping your family safe and dealing with the ‘what ifs?’

HARI SREENIVASAN: Yesterday, the U.S. State Department warned travelers of the potential for terror attacks in Europe this summer. But for many Americans, the fear of terrorism is not limited to threats abroad.

National security expert Juliette Kayyem has this essay on how parents and children can feel safer at home in the face of growing anxieties.

JULIETTE KAYYEM, National Security Analyst: "What am I supposed to say?" a close friend asks me.

Her daughter had just approached her with this question: "Mom, is ISIS in New York City?"

My friend is looking for a confidante, but also for any confidence I can deliver from my professional vantage point, as a homeland security expert. It also doesn't hurt that I'm a mother of three. My friend wants me to tell her everything is going to be OK.

And I get it. I get that irrational fear in the back of our minds, that what if, that, yes, I know the chances of some random act of violence or terror is unlikely, but, still, I get it. Even a .0001 percent statistical likelihood still means someone falls within it, and what if that's my child?

So, here's the truth, brutal and liberating: There is no such thing as perfect security, no white flag that will be raised, no future world filled with unicorns and rainbows. No homeland defense apparatus is going to make perfect security attainable.

Government certainly has the responsibility to protect us, but in this day and age of globalism, where we enjoy the flow of people and goods and ideas, we will never get the risk to anywhere near zero. Simply put, stuff happens. Now embrace it and move on to what you can control.

As a responsible parent, you purchase that car seat. You buy a bike helmet, talk to your kids about texting and driving. You minimize their risks and maximize their defenses. And yet, somehow, terror seems different, so random, uncontrollable.

That distinction is of our own making. If something catastrophic were to happen, there is comfort in knowing that basic precautions can go far to give you grip and control in the aftermath.

The general rule of thumb is that every home should be prepared for basic needs for three days without outside help. In the field, it's called 72 on you.

So, first, go to your convenient supermarket and get the following: water, cereal, nuts, protein bars, a flashlight, batteries, and a first-aid kit. That's it, seriously. There is always more you could get to make life better. We have added vodka and Diet Coke and Red Vines to our stash, given my family's bad habits.

But don't let the perfect be enemy of the prepared. Then make copies of essential papers. Mail them out of state or save a photo of them to the cloud.

Finally, have a conversation at home about what to do if family members are in different places. In a crisis, all you will care about is family unification. Talk through strategies if cell service is down. Map out alternative plans.

Addressing these risks isn't going to shock your older kids. They already saw it all on Twitter. Manage your and their fears by preparing for when the bad thing might happen.

As parents, the more we can maximize our own readiness, the less we will feel that we have no grip over the mayhem that exists out there.

Professionally and personally, I would like nothing more than to be able to answer the question is ISIS in New York City with an absolute no. But, failing that, why not have a backup plan? Own it. Then move on.

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