9/11 has taught us many lessons

September 09, 2011|By DON AINES |
  • Hagerstown Community College history professor Thomas Clemens discusses things we have learned from the Sept. 111, 2001 terrorist attacks.
By Joe Crocetta/Staff Photographer

"Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." — George Santayana

History never actually repeats itself, as each incident is unique, but events like the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks set the table for decisions and actions that can be examined a decade later to learn what did and did not work.

"We learned that our traditional defense of 3,000-plus miles of ocean is no longer a barrier," Thomas G. Clemens, a professor of history at Hagerstown Community College, wrote in an email. "We have learned to be more vigilant, to notice suspicious activity, and to be aware of our surroundings."

Clemens wrote that the nation also learned it cannot ignore global problems, but that our reactions to them have consequences.

"When we fought to free Kuwait (following the 1990 invasion by Iraq), we thought we were doing the right thing," but our military presence in Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries "stirred Muslim extremists to react," Clemens wrote.

According to the Associated Press, 2,977 people died as a result of the attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and in the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pa. The figures do not include the 19 hijackers aboard the four airplanes involved.

For U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., the lesson was that America had to shift its antiterrorism strategy.

"America learned in the worst way possible that we have a determined enemy that is dedicated towards violent jihad and the destruction of our very way of life," Shuster wrote in an email. The enemy, no longer content with attacking Americans abroad, brought the war to our home, he wrote.

"Prior to the 9/11 attacks, especially during the Clinton administration, the fight against Islamic terrorism and radicalization was viewed through the prism of law enforcement," Shuster wrote.

After the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa, "our objective ... was to investigate, track down and arrest terrorist leaders and put them on trial," Shuster wrote.

After the 9/11 attacks, "we understood the need to combat the threat of Islamic terrorism jointly, with law enforcement, our military and the intelligence community working together as one to destroy terrorist networks, disrupt their financing and kill their leadership," Shuster wrote.

"This was a major policy shift in the way terrorism was viewed and will have lasting impacts on American domestic and foreign policy for years to come."

A nation unites

U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., wrote that the attacks taught us about the character of the American people.

"What I remember most from 9/11 is the way our nation came together immediately after seeing the stunning footage of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon," Capito wrote.

"As West Virginians, we showed our caring and compassion as we organized supply drives for the victims in New York and prayed for the families of the missing or wounded," Capito wrote. "I am humbled by and proud of the brave men and women who serve in the United States armed forces and intelligence operations, many of whom have made the ultimate sacrifice defending our freedom at home and abroad."

"I think it has raised the situational awareness, not just of law enforcement, but of the general public, as well," Washington County Sheriff Douglas W. Mullendore said.

"I think it definitely opened our eyes and made us more aware of our surroundings," said T.J. Buskirk, Hancock's police chief. People have learned to be more vigilant of any suspicious activity, he said.

Hancock Town Manager David Smith said there is no way to know how many terrorist incidents have been thwarted in the past decade due to the heightened vigilance of the public and law enforcement. At the same time, there is no guarantee of safety, he said.

"There's no way you can really stop someone with a death wish," Smith said.

Security vs. liberty

The nation's reaction to 9/11 was to increase security across the board, which has prompted debate as to whether that compromised people's personal liberties.

Founding father Benjamin Franklin once warned: "Those who would give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty or safety."

"What I hate to see, and what both parties have done, is just crunch our personal liberties in the name of security," Washington County Circuit Judge Daniel P. Dwyer said. "There's no political bent to it at all. Both presidents (George W. Bush and Barack Obama) have done it. Both parties have done it."

Elements of the Patriot Act, including intercepting overseas phone calls, the deportation of suspects to be detained and interrogated in other countries — a practice known as rendition — were some of the measures Dwyer questioned.

"That's not us defeating terrorism. That's terrorism defeating us," Dwyer said. "That's just the civil libertarian in me."

Dwyer said the need for public safety has to be weighed against the preservation of personal liberties.

The 9/11 attacks made it necessary to beef up security measures at places like public buildings and airports, more an inconvenience than an infringement of rights, said Joe Gunter, a retired Defense Department investigator who works security at the Stadium Tavern in Hagerstown.

"Did you ever think you'd see armed military with automatic weapons in airports?" asked Gunter, who was working as an investigator in 2001. It is a situation that Europeans have lived with much longer, he said.

"The last time we had that was World War II, and people dealt with it," Gunter said, noting that some of the more intense security measures adopted immediately after 9/11 were later re-evaluated and scaled back.

The controversial body scanners installed at some airports have been modified not to produce physically graphic images of passengers, he said.

Fear was a logical reaction to the attacks, but some of that fear proved to be "an irrational and powerful force," causing many people to fear all Muslims and Arabs, Clemens wrote.

"We saw that same fear drive legislation through Congress that infringed on our privacy, once more causing us to question the proper balance of freedom and security, and how much we will sacrifice one to obtain the other," Clemens wrote.

"I think most of all we have learned that the United States is not invincible," Clemens wrote. "That is a huge blow to our national psyche."


Coming Sunday

The Herald-Mail talks with first responders and military families who share how the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have affected their lives.

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