9/11—We Said We'd Never Let It Happen Again, and Yet It Might

Our national institutions have failed over the past seven years, and we are once again at risk.

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We all said then that we would never let it happen again. We all said then that we would always remember where we were when it happened. We all said a lot of things. Then.

For those of us who lost friends that day, the pain is still strong and tears still come easily. For those of us in action that day, the events are so vivid—memories that will never dim.

And yet. In a very real way, America has forgotten: forgotten its pledge to get those who attacked us. A few of those involved were captured in the two years that followed. Those who were caught were subjected to a perversion of the American justice system and are still held in Cuba, never having been tried, let alone convicted. Compare that to those who conducted the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993; they were rounded up all over the world, read their rights, given attorneys, had fair trials before real courts in New York, were found guilty, and are now permanently entombed in their solitary cells in Supermax.

And, of course, Osama bin Ladin and Ayman Zawahiri are still at large, and thousands have joined al Qaeda and similar movements because of the U.S. invasion and continuing occupation of Iraq.

The freedom of bin Ladin and Zawahiri is a symbol to the Islamist fundamentalist movement, a symbol that you can defy America, commit heinous atrocities, and not get caught or punished. But these men are also more than that. They are part of a healthy, functioning al Qaeda organization, one that the CIA director and the director of national intelligence have characterized as rebuilt and again offering a real threat to U.S. interests and to those of us inside the United States. Al Qaeda, along with the Taliban, is killing NATO troops in Afghanistan. Terrorists who look European have been trained at al Qaeda camps in Pakistan and sent back out into the world. Some may have European Union passports and clean identities unknown to intelligence agencies. Such people could enter the United States almost as easily as did the 9/11 hijackers.

We said we would never let it happen again, but what have we done to live up to that pledge? We have not destroyed al Qaeda, but our failures don't stop there. Our multibillion-dollar "homeland security" response has degenerated into a politicized pork-barrel project. The Department of Homeland Security ranks among the lowest in terms of performance standards and the highest in the percentage of political appointees. Our borders are still porous. Our air and sea cargo are still not fully screened, despite congressional orders to do so. We still do not know when or if visitors depart our country, despite Congress's mandating an exit screening to track when people have overstayed their visas. There is little security on passenger rail systems, from Amtrak to Boston's T to San Francisco's BART. Few major metropolitan areas are prepared to deal with a mass casualty event. The list goes on.

On 9/11, firefighters and police died because they did not have secure, interoperable, reliable communications. We said we would fix that. But seven years on, the Federal Communications Commission is still considering how to give first responders the radio spectrum frequencies they need for reliable communications.

On 9/11, office workers died because there were not adequate means of emergency egress. We said we would fix that, too, at least for new buildings. Yet this week, the Bush administration is arguing against improving the building codes to implement the post-9/11 safety recommendations.

It's not for lack of will by the American people that so much of what we said we would do has not been done. The people were willing then to do whatever was necessary, from added inconvenience to higher taxes, and many are still willing. It is our institutions that have failed. The executive branch has proved incapable of managing programs to success. The Congress has proved unable to conduct productive oversight. The media have grown bored and moved on. What has been lacking is capable leadership.