The eighth anniversary of 9/11 came and went without much thought in the news media about what we have learned from this horrible event. In this age of terror, here are my four personal lessons from 9/11, which, if learned, could help to make us a safer, stronger country.
1. Nothing is inevitable.
In focus group discussions with voters, I have observed that when a horrific tragedy like 9/11 happens, it becomes too painful for people to think that we could have prevented it from happening. That kind of collective guilt is too unbearable. This leads to people saying that if future terrorists want to attack the USA, we really cannot stop them.
We know now that 9/11 was preventable. The FBI stifled a memo from at least one of its agents warning of such an attack. The CIA had separate intelligence of an imminent terrorist attack by air, which it brought to President Bush in August of 2001. Ron Suskind has reported that Bush dismissed it and he belittled the person who presented the memo to him at his ranch, saying, “Okay, now you have covered your ass.”
As far as we know, none of his foreign policy or security aides said, “Mr. President, maybe we should take a look at this.”
2. If attacked, do not strike back until we know why we were attacked.
Our country’s response to 9/11 was summed up by President Bush’s statement, “The people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” Other than the obvious point that Islamic fundamentalists hate America, did anyone stop to think of what al Qaeda hoped to accomplish by the attack? Shouldn’t our response be to thwart al Qaeda’s purpose?
All organized terrorists have a purpose. When the Irish Republican Army bombed London pubs that served British soldiers in the 1970’s, they wanted to weaken England’s resolve in Northern Ireland. When Islamic fundamentalists kidnapped and killed Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, they were sending a message to the U.S. media that “it’s time for you to leave.” If you agree that terrorism can be defined as the intentional targeting and killing of civilians in order to make a point, then you must consider the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as two of the most horrific terrorist acts of the 20th century. Our objective was to demoralize the Japanese people so completely that they would demand their leaders end the war. All of these examples had a strategy and all of them succeeded to some extent.
After 9/11 we should have asked, “What did al Qaeda hope to gain by this? “ In November 2001, I was at a Washington party, arguing that it served no meaningful purpose for the U.S. to bomb the caves of Afghanistan as a response to 9/11. I suggested to a friend, who has been a high level member of the Washington foreign policy establishment for decades, that maybe the attack was designed to provoke the U.S. to respond with a show of force in the Middle East that causes the countries and people of that region to join al Qaeda’s hatred of us. My friend gave me a tutorial look: “Well, no,” he said, “the only thing they understand in the Middle East is muscle and might. We have to hit somebody hard to teach them a lesson.”
I asked myself, what lesson? The fundamentalists already hate us. Why not figure out what might hurt them more—like using the world-wide good will we had gained immediately after 9/11 to persuade countries in the Middle East to ostracize al Qaeda? Other than satisfying a need for revenge, what goal were we serving?
3. Don’t ignore the facts.
Before we went to war as a response to 9/11, here is what was COMMON KNOWLEDGE TO EVERYONE:
The experienced and respected United Nations arms inspector Hans Blix, whom President Bush encouraged to go to Iraq to find weapons of mass destruction, returned saying he could not find any. Even if weapons were found, Iraq had no way of launching them to hit the United States. No one disputed that Iraq did not represent a danger to the United States.
Iraq was – except for Israel – the most inhospitable nation to al Qaeda in the Middle East. Saddam Hussein’s brand of the Muslim religion tolerated out of sight nightclubs more than religious extremism. Saddam made it clear that extremist cells were mot welcome in Iraq. At the same, time American allies like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan harbored these terrorists.
None of these facts were hidden from the public or the Congress or the pundits who pushed for war. To counter these facts we only had the word of President Bush that Saddam Hussein was a bad guy and Colin Powell showing an embarrassingly thin photo exhibit at the United Nations.
Those who excuse the public, the press, and the policy makers by saying they cannot be blamed for embracing the war in Iraq because the nation was shocked after 9/11, need to take a lesson: it is precisely in those times when we are shocked, that our leaders – and the news media – have the responsibility to make sure that they separate the facts from international relations game theory, group think, and political motivations. President Kennedy made the right decision during the Cuban missile crisis after most of his military and top foreign policy experts wanted him to invade Cuba, which might have begun nuclear Armageddon.
4. Accountability is not to make us feel good; it is necessary to make us effective.
One truism of government is that the people in it never want to hang their dirty laundry out in public. So they create doomsday scenarios if anyone finds out about their screw-ups.
President Nixon told the New York Times it was committing treason if it published the Pentagon Papers, which told Americans how their government did not follow the facts in escalating the Vietnam War. Nixon claimed executive privilege when he wanted to hide the Watergate scandal.
Now President Obama, and most of the Washington punditry, has opposed prosecuting CIA officials and those who served in the Bush White House and Justice Department.
The pundits pontificate two themes:
First, we should not look backward, we should look forward. Well, all crimes are committed in the past. Should our courts let someone off for murder because, after all, the murder happened in the past and we should all be looking forward?
Second, investigating and prosecuting bad behavior will hurt morale in the CIA and may hurt American security. This morale argument is the equivalent of saying that we should look the other way when we think the local parish priest has been molesting young boys, because if we cause a fuss, it will hurt morale in the priesthood, and fewer young men will want to join into the priesthood. We should take the bishop’s word that he will take care of things.
When Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced he would review evidence of abuses at U.S. prisons overseas, CIA director Leon Panetta sounded like Nixon as he called for an investigation into who let the story out. In other words, our leaders are less concerned about admitting and correcting their mistakes than they are about who squealed.
We should be smart enough to know that holding people in government accountable will get rid of bad people, will raise standards of performance in government, and encourage higher quality people to go into government. Ultimately, it will lead to a more ethical and professional and effective core of public servants to make us safer than we have been.
Eight years after 9/11 our nation still has not learned these lessons. How long will it take?