Before we dive in, I’d like to provide a word of caution to my more conservative readers. The following piece will be a lot more critical of the Bush administration than I usually am on this site. As the piece unfold, you will realize why I consider what is probably the defining event of my generation to be a list of missteps, miscues, and missed opportunities.
We will never forget
It’s hard to believe, now four years later that the nation swore that it would never forget what happened on that day. Beyond New York and Washington DC, however, it seems that people have moved on. I was even told to do so, during a conversation with people outside of the strike zones. It’s easy for people who only witnessed the matter on television to do so; It’s a little harder for people who witnessed it first hand; It’s even more difficult for those who lost friends in it; And I cannot even start to imagine how difficult it would be for those who lost family members in it. Some of us have not forgotten and it is our burden to bring it back, at least once a year, dredge up the dust and see how well we are doing in our recovery.
Since then, we’ve seen the largest reorganization of government, with an intent to prepare it for a major crisis, and its first test with the disaster in New Orleans; we’ve seen two wars, one with the intent to bring culprits to justice, the other with unclear objectives; we’ve seen the first steps of a reconstruction that may or may not be going slower than expected; and we’ve seen government work on financial appropriations that seemed to go anywhere but on the areas that need it.
… and so, we pick up the pieces and do the evaluation, and the assessment is, when faced with core facts, sadly inappropriate for an event in which over 2,000 people lost their lives. Let’s dig in on the details…
As a result of the 9/11 disaster, the U.S. government reorganized itself to be more prepared for when future disasters struck. A new department, named the Department of Homeland Security was tasked with the responsibility of coordinating any effort relating to disasters, man-made or other, happening on U.S. soil.
The first major test came not from a man-made event but from hurricane Katrina and its aftermath and, if the event of the last couple of weeks are showcasing how successful or unsuccessful the department of homeland security was at protecting the homeland, I feel a little less secure now than I did on the morning of September 11th, 2001.
I will leave it to others to dig into whether the levies were under disrepair due to poor money allocation but it is without a doubt that the scenario of one of those levies breaking and flooding all of New Orleans was one that DHS should have prepared for. As opposed to the morning on September 11th, 2001, this last disaster was one where the general public was aware that it was coming. In fact, in the days leading up to the hurricane, breathless reports on most of the 24-hour TV news network talked about how the levies in New Orleans were a potential risk if the hurricane were to hit the city. Worries about a potential flood were so high, the government asked for a massive evacuation of New Orleans prior to the hurricane, and yet it did not provide buses or other modes of transportations to help those who did not have transportation get out of the area.
Katrina did not hit New Orleans head on (that distinction went to Gulfport, Mississippi, which is now what one could only call a former city, the destruction of the area being so complete that it is difficult to imagine a city once existed there) and yet, it was seriously damaged. Katrina was known of several days in advance, and yet government trucks with supplies did not roll into the city until a few days after the disaster. Images of people stranded in the Superdome made their way to the airwaves, and yet the head of FEMA and DHS did not seem to know there were people there until four days later.
If this is the kind of response the U.S. government now has to disasters, please give us back the pre-9/11 response scenario. At least, on that day, police and fire officers were there within minutes, FEMA was there within hours, and people were helped within a day or so.
Some will say that the response was different because this was an “act of God” but one could warrant that the only distinction that exists between an act of God and an act of man is that God gave us warning. Had a terrorist group decided to blow up one or more of those levies in New Orleans, I believe the response would not have been any better.
I now worry more than I did in the days prior to 9/11 and it is not because I fear terrorist more (having lived in France in the 80s, the age of terrorism is one I grew up in) but it is because I fear that our preparedness to a major disaster, whether it is a terrorist one or an act of God, is worse today than it was on the morning of 9/11. If a terror group where to attack the subway tunnels in New York city (let’s assume they’d blow up a bomb in one of the underwater tunnels, combining the horrors of 9/11 with those of Katrina), or if a major earthquake were to struck California (Los Angeles or San Francisco in particular), I fear that the U.S. government in un-ready in accomplishing the first duty of any government: protecting its people.
The Hunt for Bin Laden
If the government is not ready in dealing with a crisis after the fact, let’s look at what it is doing to deal with the people that are responsible, when a crisis is man-made. After 9/11, we were promised that those who were responsible for the attack on the World Trade Center would be brought to justice. The main culprit, we were told, was a man by the name of Osama Bin Laden, who heads a group called Al Caeda. Based in Afghanistan, the group is a coalition of several terrorist groups around the world and has been proven beyond the shadow of a doubt to be responsible for the horrific act in New York.
Four years later, Osama Bin Laden is still free, supposedly somewhere in either Afghanistan or Pakistan, based on what I’ve read of expert accounts in several newspapers. And four years later, Al Caeda’s capabilities do not seem to have diminished much. In fact, they seem to be on a new roll: recently, they claimed responsibilities for bombing in Madrid, Spain, and London, UK.
The U.S. did accomplish the toppling of the Taliban, which was the Afghan government hosting terrorists. However, it seems that the new government is having problem trying to regain control of the country. Some areas in Afghanistan are ruled by warlords, some of whom have aligned themselves with the Taliban, and democratically elected leaders are murdered on a regular bases by forces friendly to or associated with the Taliban. In other words, Afghanistan is a country that is teetering on the edge of a civil war, with a few American troops left behind (a substantial portion of the US troops on the ground were relocated to Iraq after that conflict started) attempting to keep the whole country from imploding.
Meanwhile, Bin Laden is taking advantage of the confusion and the rough terrain (the south of the country is very mountainous, making it difficult to do a successful man-hunt) to hide and continue directing global terror efforts via frequently leaked audio or videotapes bringing encouragement to his supporters. His demonization may have been forgotten in the United States but it has not been forgotten by US-opponents who are now seeing him as a rallying point, thus strengthening his power globally, and increasing the ranks of Al Caeda. As a hunt, it has been a major failure and as a fight against terrorism, it has been a disaster.
War in Iraq
So instead of trying to locate Bin Laden, the U.S. leadership has been trying to shift the fighting ground, first by talking up a presumed link between Iraq and the terrorists that struck the world trade center (several government investigations later, the existence of such link has been refuted time and time again by commissions appointed by the same president who has led the administration’s effort at creating the link in the first place.) That supposed link and the subsequent inference by members of the Bush administration that we had to invade Iraq before we ended up seeing “a mushroom cloud over an American city” led to a conflict that lowered the reputation of the United States around the world (a day after the WTC was destroyed, French president Jacques Chirac declared “Today, we are all Americans” a couple of years later, France has become one of the biggest opponents to the Iraqi conflict.)
While the U.S. administration was building up its case to invade Iraq, millions of people in the US and abroad made the counter-case: that, while Saddam Hussein was a horrible individual, he was a despot under control, weighted down by years of U.N. sanctions and that what would follow his removal would be potential anarchy in a country that controls almost 20 percent of the world’s oil reserve. The case was also made that an invasion of Iraq would be costly in terms of invaders’ blood and that it would probably help strengthen, not weaken, terrorists as it gave them something to point to the evilness of the west.
Sadly, the invasion of Iraq went through, with the United States and United Kingdom leading the charge, and few others following. The first days looked very good as the forces met with very little resistance, making it into Baghdad within days, capturing Hussein within months and looking as if all the nay-sayers had been wrong…
… but time has told another story. While the initial success of the invasion of Iraq could have been cause for praise, the following years have been a long descent into hell with many of the worst predictions made by opponents of the invasion turning from conjecture to truth. At the current time, American troops have suffered over 2,000 casualties with more coming every day; tension between Sunnis, Kurds, and Shiites are increasing to the point where the country may soon be facing civil war… and Al Caeda has been using the invasion as not only a recruiting tool (claiming that the imperialism of the west is the reason for their fight, a big of circular logic on its own as it was not the reason they gave for 9/11) but also as a training ground in urban warfare for their future recruits.
Much as the cold-war Afghani proxy fight between Russians and Americans had been a training ground for the Bin Laden generation of terrorists, Iraq is turning out a new generation not only of insurgents but also of future carriers of atrocities.
The new argument coming from the administration is that it is better to take the fight to the terrorist than it is to have them to it to us. This argument, which is how Saudi Arabia has managed to be an exporter of terror by removing its more extreme elements to foreign places like Afghanistan, is starting to show wear and tear. In the case of Saudi Arabia, they have recently seen attacks against foreigners in their own country. In the case of the West, London and Madrid stand as painful reminder that the fight is not just located in Iraq but is metastizing into a cancer that infiltrates every society. It may not have happened in the United States since 9/11 (and thank god for that) but I fear that it is only a question of time before they strike again.
As a tool in the war on terror (a term recently replaced by “struggle against violent extremists” or SAVE, an acronym which makes me feel a bit uncomfortable), the Iraqi conflict has been a disaster and one can only hope that the situation will not get any worse than it is now.
Considering the different failures at the federal level, one hopes that more is happening at the local level and that the federal government has been doing a good job at providing cities and states with what they need to defend themselves against terrorist attacks.
From a New York standpoint, things haven’t been particularly rosy. New York City may have been the primary target on September 11th, 2001; the New York area may have a population of 20 millions people (8 millions in the city ), representing roughly 10 percent of the US population but Congress decided to use a different formula to calculate financial appropriations of counter-terrorist funds. As a result, places like Montana or Wyoming find themselves with per capita appropriations that are several multiple larger than the per capita appropriations the New York area (or for that matter, any other major Metropolitan area) does.
But the real irony is that the city ends up giving the federal government more of that money than any other area. In other words, if there were no federal allocation of money for terrorism, New York City would find itself with more money to fight terrorism than it is under the present case.
And, considering the recent disaster in New Orleans, there is another sad fact to take into account: when the Department of Homeland Security was created, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was folded into it. As more allocations were made to fighting terrorists, some of the money was taken from dealing with other issues. Some of the money that was taken away was money to deal with ensuring that some of the infrastructure was kept in good shape. As hurricanes and earthquakes took a back sit to fighting terrorists, repairing levees in order for them to be able to survive during a natural disaster became less important. The images of the last couple of weeks are a painful reminder of the cost of such calculation.
Four years later, there is, however, one bit of good news: at ground zero, a new building is rising… but not the one you’d expect. World Trade Center 7, which burned down a few hours after the hours collapsed, is rising anew above ground zero. It represents a beacon of hope for all New Yorkers who went through that horrible day.
Sadly, the rest of reconstruction at ground zero has been pretty horrible, with petty fights breaking out between the different individuals and agencies involved in said reconstruction. The result is that, four years after the towers went down, there is still a large hole not only in our hearts but also in the New York grounds. Inspired architecture was promised, then dismissed as concerns about security took hold. Instead, we may soon see what may either be the most beautiful bunker or one of the most awful towers to grace the New York City skyline. As a symbol of rebirth, it will be one brought force by fear and anxiety, not by the optimism and hopefulness that once were the hallmark of this country.
… and four years after our world changed, that is a damn shame.