Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

September 7, 2009

Fragments from September 10, 2001

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 7, 2009

Does anyone know who coined “September 10 thinking” as a term of opprobrium? Does someone have Bill Safire on speed dial? He’s the expert on such origins.

Last week Abe Greenwald used the Curse of the Tenth to attack George Will’s Tuesday column, “Time to get out of Afghanistan“.  The neo-con attacks the tory with,

His column represents September 10 thinking, only worse. On September 10, we thought doing “only what can be done from offshore” was keeping us safe. Today we know how insufficient were our measures. On September 10, we thought a handful of special ops could mind a border that runs nearly half the lateral distance of the United States. Today we know that that terrain is endlessly accommodating to vast enemy armies. On September 10, we thought a monochromatic wasteland like Afghanistan didn’t “matter.” Today we know better.

There is little worse than to be on the wrong side of history.  But how do you know when you’ve been left behind?  To me the currents usually seem to swirl every which way.

This Friday it will be eight years from the day. We each remember where we were when we first heard, when we first saw the towers smoking or the Pentagon’s deep wound. How did it change your worldview, the range of options you consider reasonable, your perception of reality?

Was there a flash of clarity in that moment?  Or since?  What meaning have you made of the memories?

For me the 911 attack — while tactically audacious and unexpected  — was not a strategic surprise.  It fit a pattern that could be observed from, at least,  the 1993 WTC attack, to the double-trouble embassy bombings, to blasting a hole in the USS Cole.  We knew — or should have known — another state-side attack was coming. 

Just as we should anticipate another audacious attack sometime, somewhere inside the US… sooner now than later.

Perhaps because I was not surprised, my sense of discontinuity from September 10 to September 12 is less pronounced than for some others.  I am as motivated to prevent and mitigate as before.  I did not then — and do not now — expect complete success.

Eight years later — as on September 10, 2001 — I am concerned by our predilection for surprise.  Surprise can prompt over-reaction. I am as worried about our over-reaction amplifying harm as our adversaries’  capacity to cause harm.  

Fundamental to asymmetric warfare is luring the more powerful enemy into hurting itself.  Too often al-Qaeda has been successful in doing this. Some may see this concern as evidence of my “September 10 thinking.”  If so,  I accept the critique.

To better understand September 10 thinking, I have looked back to what I was reading before the attack.  My sample is far from rigorous.  It depends mostly on my reading list having online archives easily available.  You may have a radically different reading-list.  If so, I hope you might use the comment function to remind us of our shared reality on the evening before “everything changed.”

Some quick samples:

The American Rome: On the theory of virtuous empire by Lewis H. Lapham in the August, 2001 Harpers magazine.  Lapham opens with a quote from Graham Greene, “Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”  I don’t know about Greene, but Lapham makes the bell-less leper the United States, a bumbling bringer of harm.  During the 2000 election campaign no less than George W. Bush cautioned, “If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us; if we’re a humble nation, but strong, they’ll welcome us. And our nation stands alone right now in the world in terms of power, and that’s why we’ve got to be humble, and yet project strength in a way that promotes freedom.”  There was awareness of imperial hubris and its potential effect.

Bystanders to Genocide by Samantha Power in the September Atlantic. The author now serves on the White House National Security Staff.  Eight years ago she wrote,

Why did the United States not do more for the Rwandans at the time of the killings? Did the President really not know about the genocide, as his marginalia suggested? Who were the people in his Administration who made the life-and-death decisions that dictated U.S. policy? Why did they decide (or decide not to decide) as they did? Were any voices inside or outside the U.S. government demanding that the United States do more? If so, why weren’t they heeded? And most crucial, what could the United States have done to save lives?

We were being self-critical regarding how and why we make the most important decisions of when and where to apply US power.

Or perhaps you were reading How suicide bombers are made by Fiamma Nirenstein in the September, 2001 Commentary.  I recall being troubled by the essay’s tone.  But after September 11, I read it with different eyes and ears.

Are these September 10, 2001 questions and concerns irrelevant to us eight years later?  I don’t think so.  And if we were — as the 9/11 Commission so persuasively documented — aware of so much then, what might this tell us of our awareness and readiness today?

For the remainder of this week, please join me — pending breaking news and deferring to my colleagues’ posts — in considering what a September 10 mindset might tell us.

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2 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 7, 2009 @ 6:07 am

Ah the eight year mark arrives. I was sitting at home in Arlington recovering from exploratory surgery for cancer that found none but indicated still localized when my wife called me from her workplace to tell me that I should turn on the TV and see what had happened at the WTC. Almost immediately after turning it on I saw a plane hit the second tower. Since now two towers had been struck and having some background and training knew immediately under attack. Had played exercise scenarios where domestic aircraft had been utilized as attack vehicles. Also had been asked if I wanted to do 6-9 months as an Air Marshall when recently returned from the Army to the Treasury Department in early 70’s. Vaguely recall discussions of increased cockpit security them and had always assumed would be long accomplished. Even now not sure whether completed for both scheduled and non-scheduled aircraft lines.
Okay, having lived near MUNICH in the runup to the 1972 Olympic Games watched them with interest when I could including the tragedy of the Israli athletes. The 26 hour performance of Jim McKay embedded his voice and that scene in my memory.
What I had not done on September 10th is focused completely on the threat from Islamic Fundamentalism despite having followed the terrorist issue with some degree of interest and professional involvment as of September 10. I had retired from FEMA for health reasons on October 1, 1999 so almost a decade later glad to be alive. I had read Samuel Huntington’s book “Clash of Civilizations” and knowing him indirectly knew he had suffered slings and arrows for raising the issues in that books and several others he had written.
Even then I like Phil was not completely shocked and viewed 9/11 as part of a continuum. Even little understaffed, underfunded FEMA had had a role from inception in domestic terrorism and its threats. See http://www.fas.org/irp/agency/dhs/fema/chron.pdf
I actually like the term the long “war” knowing that like the Cold War which I view as the Soviet Union having lost but the US did not win as a long long run struggle based largely on the justice and effectiveness of our democracy (republic) as a “Shining City on a Hill” to others. I also have read in the passage of the last eight (8) years over 100 books dealing with the history of the Islamic World and the West (rereading William H. McNiell’s “Rise of the West” for third time now! Also read about the runup to 9/11 including Michael Scheur’s books, Bernard Lewis’ books, Richard Clark’s books, finding that “The Age of Sacred Terror” one of the best. Also gave a briefing to 9/11 Commission Staff for five hours with my focus largely on information sharing. Read books like “Angler” and the “1% Solution”!
Of all my reading found the most interesting and informative from long run speculation on how the long war will come out a book called “The Children of Aristotle” about how in the 10th and 11th Centuries the full (not just extracts) writings of Aristotle became available in the West from the wonderful libraries of Damascus, Baghdad, and Cairo. And about the 250 year long struggle in Catholicism, including the contributions of St. Thomas Aquinas over the evolution of the “faith” versus “reason” argument. Also, just finished a wonderful book by a British published poet and historian out this year called the “Age of Wonder” that covers the developments in British science from 1750 to 1830 (the period before the sailing of the Beagle and Darwin’s efforts). A fascinating take on the “Two Cultures” documented so skillfully by A.N.Whitehead and C.P. Snow. It is my belief that the long long war is not between religions and certainly Islam is a “Western” religion and tradition! Instead it is the long war between “faith” and “reason” and while hoping that each can reinforce each other I do hope reason is the long term winner. Thanks for the Post Phil.

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October 26, 2014 @ 4:17 pm

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