Friday, April 09, 2004

What the 9/11 Commission Should be Asking 

“Could we have prevented 9/11?”

That seems to be the question everyone is asking, but is it the right question? One could argue that 9/11 was prevented in 1993 due to the error and miscalculation of the terrorists. One could likewise argue that we prevented 9/11 in 1999 when a customs agent playing a hunch foiled the Millennium plot. We have heard others opine that if INS had stopped the entry of the terrorists or if the FBI had picked up the terrorists or if the airlines had detained individuals on watch lists or if (insert condition here) … we could have prevented 9/11. I, however, feel it is more accurate to say that we could have, once again, only delayed 9/11.

As Dr. Rice’s testimony emphasized, nothing that would have stopped the attacks on the WTC and Pentagon from happening would have changed the long-known assessment that “Bin Laden [was] determined to attack inside the United States” nor would it have likely changed the mindset in place that prevented us from being on a “war footing” at that time. As such, the question of “could we have prevented 9/11” is akin to asking a baseball player “can you hit a home run?” Through luck or skill or circumstance almost any play can hit a home run, but the real question is one of consistency and intention. For years, in the world of global terrorism, we have at times been good and at other times lucky, but on 9/11 we were betrayed by both.

A more important question not being asked is “should we have been on a ‘war footing’ prior to 9/11 and, if so, what should have served as the stimulus to put us there?” What, in the future, should our threshold be for violent rhetoric and deeds before initiating decisive action to avert another, potentially more devastating, attack? This question is extremely important to our national character and what sort of country the US will be in this century. I say this, because while the surest way to have prevented 9/11 would have been to eliminate the threat prior, doing so would have required the US to act contrary to its history and nature, to have initiated conflict and employed deadly force based upon threat, goals and motivations of out enemies rather than based upon their demonstrated actions. While some claim we have done such a thing in Iraq, the long legacy of UN sanctions and violations make a convincing arguement for many against the charge. No, what I am talking of is a truly pre-emptive action. If we detect DPRK shipping nuclear components, are we willing to put that ship on the bottom? If we find Iran nearing completion of weapons, will we take whatever action is needed to stop their work? If we find elements at work in Casablanca preparing to act against the US or her interests and do not get adequate help from local authorities will we go in and take care of the problem? These are the real questions that come from 9/11, for there has to be some line, as a nation, beyond which we will not go. Some line beyond which we say “we are willing to accept that risk and do our best, but to go further compromises who we are as a nation and a people.” So the real question is if truly “preventing” and not just “delaying” 9/11 laid beyond that line or not?

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