What everyone seems to remember about 9/11 was how beautiful and clear the day was. Certainly it was lovely in Kansas, and across the Eastern seaboard, the sun shone brightly. As days go, it seemed like a good one. I woke up, as always, to NPR’s Morning Edition. Who knows what exactly they were talking about when a report came through that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.
That was interesting, and woke me up a little more. I assumed it was a small plane, and I knew that the Twin Towers had been designed to sustain an impact as large as a 707, so when I flipped on the TV, it was mostly out of idle curiosity. Pretty soon, the second plane, and then a third, hit, and I knew with a clarity as stark as the Kansas sky, that the nation was under attack.
Calling my family in the area was tough, and when the Towers fell they took with them a lot of New York’s communications abilities. In the days that followed, I looked through the lists of missing, hoping not to find my college or high school classmates, or friends and family who worked in and around the Towers and the Pentagon. Flying home to New Jersey, I always get to see the empty hole where the Twin Towers belong. I remember walking through the Upper West Side that fall and a sidewalk full of people stopping and watching a plane coming low over Manhattan to land at Laguardia. The world changed.
As time passed, we learned more about how the world had changed, and had a chance to think about the changes we wanted to see. We made Afghanistan more free, and made America less free. We then distracted ourselves from Afghanistan to fool around in Iraq.
And 5 years after the world changed, ABC is deciding whether to air a film that will lie about those horrific events and how they came to pass.
Sensible people across the political spectrum are condemning ABC’s film, reportedly written as part of a plan by evangelicals to “take back Hollywood.” J.D.‘s take is basically what everyone is saying “If it’s not historically accurate — and by all accounts, there were scenes that were not — then it should be pulled. If what’s left is historically accurate, then there is no reason it should not run.” And since it appears that what would remain after editing for accuracy would be very brief and incoherent, I hope ABC pulls it. But that’s not the line of j.d.‘s I want to respond to.
He said (and this is a view that’s quite common, I just quote him because I’ve already cited that source) “I give Bill Clinton and his administration a pass on this. All of us were asleep at the wheel on the issue of Islamic radicalism and terrorism. No one took it seriously.”
That’s just not true. People did take it seriously. The evidence was clear to the 9/11 commission:
When President Clinton took office, he decided right away to coordinate counterterrorism from the White House [rather than the decentralized form it had previously]. …
In his State of the Union message in January 1995, President Clinton promised “comprehensive legislation to strengthen our hand in combating terrorists, whether they strike at home or abroad.” In February, he sent Congress proposals to extend federal criminal jurisdiction, to make it easier to deport terrorists, and to act against terrorist fund-raising. In early May, he submitted a bundle of strong amendments. … President Clinton proposed to amend his earlier proposals by increasing wiretap and electronic surveillance authority for the FBI, requiring that explosives carry traceable taggants, and providing substantial new money not only for the FBI and CIA but also for local police.
President Clinton issued a classified directive in June 1995 … which said that the United States should “deter, defeat and respond vigorously to all terrorist attacks on our territory and against our citizens.” The directive called terrorism both a matter of national security and a crime, and it assigned responsibilities to various agencies. Alarmed by the incident in Tokyo [the Aum Shinrikyo sarin attack], President Clinton made it the very highest priority for his own staff and for all agencies to prepare to detect and respond to terrorism that involved chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons.
During 1995 and 1996, President Clinton devoted considerable time to seeking cooperation from other nations in denying sanctuary to terrorists. He proposed significantly larger budgets for the FBI, with much of the increase designated for counterterrorism. For the CIA, he essentially stopped cutting allocations and supported requests for supplemental funds for counterterrorism.
When announcing his new national security team after being reelected in 1996, President Clinton mentioned terrorism first in a list of several challenges facing the country. In 1998, after Bin Ladin’s fatwa and other alarms, President Clinton accepted a proposal from his national security advisor, Samuel “Sandy” Berger, and gave Clarke a new position as national coordinator for security, infrastructure protection, and counterterrorism. He issued two Presidential Decision Directives, numbers 62 and 63, that built on the assignments to agencies that had been made in Presidential Decision Directive 39; laid out ten program areas for counterterrorism; and enhanced, at least on paper, Clarke’s authority to police these assignments.…
Clarke also was awarded a seat on the cabinet-level Principals Committee when it met on his issues – a highly unusual step for a White House staffer. … Taken together, the two directives basically left the Justice Department and the FBI in charge at home and left terrorism abroad to the CIA, the State Department, and other agencies, under Clarke’s and Berger’s coordinating hands. …
Clearly, the President’s concern about terrorism had steadily risen. That heightened worry would become even more obvious early in 1999, when he addressed the National Academy of Sciences and presented his most somber account yet of what could happen if the United States were hit, unprepared, by terrorists wielding either weapons of mass destruction or potent cyberweapons.
During the transition, Richard Clarke and other national security staff pushed hard for high-level briefings on terrorist threats, but the incoming Bush administration had decided that China was the focus, and delayed those meetings. After intense pressure, a terrorism task force was established, to be headed by Dick Cheney, but it didn’t meet or make any serious deliberation before 9/11. Richard Clarke, who had a seat on the cabinet-level committee under Clinton, was given less access and fewer chances to brief senior officials. FBI funds for counter-terrorism were cut, while funding for anti-pornography investigations were increased.
It’s one thing to say that we shouldn’t assign blame. That’s a sensible sentiment and I basically agree with j.d. that there’s nothing to be gained by scapegoating. But it’s false to say, and I’m not scapegoating anyone in particular for this, it’s a very widespread sentiment, that “no one took it seriously.” Bill Clinton and his national security staff did take it seriously. They weren’t perfect, and undoubtedly more could have been done, and it’s fruitless to argue about whether a meaningless investigation into a failed land deal a decade earlier distracted the President from important work.
The important question is where we go from here. Do we make ourselves less of what we admire, allowing torture, secret prisons, kangaroo courts and massive invasions of our privacy? Do we allow the fear of terrorism to change how we live every moment of our lives? Do we let people carry water onto an airplane?
Those are the tough questions. As John Mueller of Ohio State writes in “A False Sense of Insecurity”:
For all the attention it evokes, terrorism actually causes rather little damage and the likelihood that any individual will become a victim in most places is microscopic. Those adept at hyperbole like to proclaim that we live in “the age of terror.” However, while obviously deeply tragic for those directly involved, the number of people worldwide who die as a result of international terrorism is generally only a few hundred a year, tiny compared to the numbers who die in most civil wars or from automobile accidents. In fact, in almost all years, the total number of people worldwide who die at the hands of international terrorists anywhere in the world is not much more than the number who drown in bathtubs in the United States.
And as security expert Bruce Schneier says, the hysteria over waterbottles on aircraft and obsessing about my Swiss Army knife at checkpoints is “What terrorists want.” He writes:
Our politicians help the terrorists every time they use fear as a campaign tactic. The press helps every time it writes scare stories about the plot and the threat. And if we’re terrified, and we share that fear, we help. All of these actions intensify and repeat the terrorists’ actions, and increase the effects of their terror.
Remember that when the NRCC starts morphing congressional candidates into Osama bin Laden, or when the President insists that only by torturing people in secret prisons can we truly be free. There’s a better way, and we need to find that way. Casting a pox on all houses isn’t the answer, because some things that we did worked, and others didn’t. We need to figure out which is which.