In a marvelous bit of irony, on this day fourteen years ago I was in Salt Lake City attending a course on protecting critical infrastructure from terrorist attack when I heard about the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I knew that the event was significant but I had no idea how much my world was about to change.
This is a day for remembrance, for honoring those who fell and those who still suffer the effects of their selfless service in those dark days. But I think we do them a disservice by not also taking a harsh look at the results of that day and asking. “Is this truly who we are?”
One of the most fundamental lessons we learned from the terrorist attacks of the 70’s was that terrorists do not expect to win through their attacks. They don’t need to. Instead, their goal is to destabilize through fear – to make the government react so harshly to the threat of terrorism that eventually the citizens of the country under attack will rise up against the government themselves.
And it’s working.
Consider some the results of that single incident:
We have replaced a flawed intelligence system with an intelligence bureaucracy so bloated that no one can say how much it costs, how many people are employed in it, or how effective it is. Worse, we can’t say how many agencies duplicate work done by others or identify intelligence gaps.
We have spent billions on protective equipment without a strategy that identifies what equipment is needed or how we will sustain the capacity we build.
We have accepted inconveniences in travel created by a system that is largely just theater with little real protective benefit.
We have treated our own citizens as hostile and subversive simply because they share or appear to share common customs and faith with our enemies. Even further, we routinely spy on our own citizens, no matter what their faith.
We have allowed our own laws and constitutional safeguards to be subverted in the name of the war on terrorism, allowing people to be held indefinitely without trial and condoning the use of torture.
From where I stand, it sure looks like we’re giving up a lot in fear of an enemy that really has only a limited capacity to hurt us. There is a war taking place but it’s not being fought just on the battlefields of the Middle East. If we lose sight of our values, if we abrogate our core beliefs, then the bad guys win. If we allow that to happen, we break faith with all those who fell on September 11th.