The 9/11 Commission, which still exists as a nonprofit foundation, recently graded the federal government’s implementation of their recommendations, and it’s a report card [.pdf] worthy of a juvenile delinquent: five Fs and those Fs don’t mean "fine" or "fantastic." We’re talking capital-F failure, as in "massive intelligence failure," when it comes to five key areas:
- The commissioners were shocked shocked! to discover that, as the Associated Press reported it, we’re "distributing federal homeland security funding to states on a ‘pork-barrel’ basis instead of risk."
- Incredible as it may seem, we still don’t have a radio system that allows local police and fire departments to communicate with various federal and state agencies.
- There is no single "watch list" for airline travelers passing through the U.S. If Mohammed Atta and his flyboys were still around, they could pass through our airports without being noticed. That their would-be successors and emulators are doing exactly that is certain.
- Congress is forced to fly blind when it comes to domestic defenses against terrorism because this administration insists that everything must be kept secret except, of course, what really does need to be kept secret. The intelligence budget is classified, and therefore cannot be discussed except behind closed doors, and even then only among a select few. If mistakes are made, it’s best to make them in the dark: that’s a nice way to cover your butt.
- Our insistence on our right to grab anyone, anywhere, declare them a terrorist, whisk them off to secret prisons, and torture them has, uh, alienated other countries whose cooperation is essential to capturing and detaining those who mean us harm.
Those Ds don’t look too promising, either. "Checked bag and cargo screening" D. "International collaboration on borders and document screening" D. Critical infrastructure assessment D. Government-wide information sharing D. The list goes on and on, but most of these Ds have something in common: they are all directly related to the task of physically preventing terrorists from blowing up large numbers of people, just as they did on 9/11/01.
And, as I contemplate the prospect of getting on a plane this weekend, I can’t say I’m too happy about that C in "airline passenger explosive screening."
The problem was best summed up by James Thompson, a Republican and former Illinois governor, who, according to the Financial Times, "said the greatest danger was the U.S.’s inability to remain focused on the continued threat of future attacks." Said Thompson:
"As the shock and the horror wore off, as other political and military challenges preoccupied our leaders and the press and our people, I think we’ve too quickly forgotten the lesson of 9/11, and the odds are very good that we’re going to pay a terrible price for forgetting that lesson."
Other matters than the defense of the country preoccupied our leaders in the wake of 9/11: invading and occupying Iraq, a project that now drains scarce resources and diverts attention from the vital effort to protect America first. We’re debating how to train Iraqi police and military units, when we should be training our own people in how best to avoid a repeat of the worst terrorist attack in our history. We’re spending $6 billion a month on a war that creates more enemies, makes us less safe, and serves only to distract us from the essential task at hand while we can’t afford to link up first-responders in a common communications system.
The purpose of the government, after all, is to protect U.S. citizens on their own soil, both from foreign invaders and their fellow citizens. That’s what they tell us in our high school "civics" classes, anyway. That this is far from the actual function of government may be the real and enduring lesson of 9/11.
The 9/11 commissioners are mortified that "pork" is the main ingredient of our post-9/11 recipe for preventing another attack but it’s perfectly understandable once one grasps that the whole purpose of government is to reward friends, punish enemies, and generally pig out at the public trough. Forget foreign policy "realism," for the moment: let’s have a little domestic policy realism for a change.
A massive dose of this sort of realism was served up as the Katrina debacle unfolded and the American people watched their government flounder, while FEMA "fashion god" Michael Brown wondered "Can I quit now?" and "Is it time to go home yet?"
The big collapse, not only in the president’s ratings, but in support for the Iraq war, started around that time, and it’s no accident. Suddenly people realized that government sucks at what it is supposed to do and, not only that, but officials are really much more focused on other matters. Government agencies don’t really have the time, energy, inclination, or resources to adequately protect or assist their involuntary "clients" because their resources are being diverted elsewhere. Government, in short, has another agenda, a hidden one, which, in that moment when Katrina dispelled our illusions, the public saw with a terrible clarity.
The United States wants to rescue the world from "Islamofascism" when it can’t even rescue its own citizens as they drown in the floodwaters of New Orleans. That realization on the part of the general public was and is revolutionary in its implications. It permits all sorts of interesting and quite subversive questions to be raised, starting with: well, if they aren’t protecting us, then what the heck are they doing with the tax dollars and power we give them?
"We’re the government and we’re here to help you" a joke Ronald Reagan was fond of making was funny in a lighthearted kind of way during the 1980s, that lost age of innocence: today, it qualifies as dark humor of an ominous sort.
Government exists for one reason and for one reason only: the self-perpetuation of the power, perks, and privileges of our rulers and their supporters. Has the distribution of "homeland security" funding become a way for our elected representatives to buy votes at everyone else’s expense? Of course it has: that’s the way the system works. This is the "democracy" we want to export to the ends of the earth, not in its corrupted form but in its purest essence.
I conclude, from this structural critique of what’s wrong with our anti-terrorist effort, that: (a) our leaders will continue their policy, so vividly on display during the Katrina catastrophe, of putting America last, (b) another attack is inevitable, and (c) our rulers will take the same lesson from 9/11-II that they learned in the first instance they’ll use the occasion to grab more power and launch more wars.
I often get letters from people who take me to task for going along with the "myth" that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda were responsible for planning and carrying out the 9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, and pointing me toward the various "Bush knew" theories, which essentially claim we bombed ourselves. These people are a trifle cracked, to be sure, but their obsessions reflect the underlying reality, which is that the actions of our government, far from making us safer, actually increase the danger and likelihood of terrorism on U.S. soil. Not being libertarians, most of them, the "Bush did it" crowd fails to realize that it wasn’t necessary for our government to plan and carry out 9/11 because all the factors leading to that event were in place due to the inherent nature of government institutions and personnel.
Who, then, or what, will protect us in the age of terrorism?
That’s a subject for another column, but, briefly, our starting point must be to make sure our government isn’t increasing the chances that terrorists will strike us once again. And the best way to do that is by reining in the War Party, ending our foreign policy of perpetual war, and, first and foremost, getting the heck out of Iraq pronto. Some Iraqi kid whose family was killed during the bombing raids we don’t hear much about is a perfect candidate for the next generation of terrorists. How long before we get a message from an Iraqi terrorist group claiming responsibility for some future horror enacted on American soil?
Not long, I fear