Sept. 11: nobody knows who let it happen
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, March 23, 2002)

The collapse of Enron attracted a regiment of U.S. congressional investigators, searching for the truth behind that gargantuan bankruptcy. That's the American way. But on the subject of a much worse calamity, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Congress remains surprisingly incurious.

For the vast community of intelligence professionals supported by billions of American dollars a year, Sept. 11 was a historic failure. I wrote on Sept. 12: "Americans, as they ponder this disaster, will look critically at their leadership" -- the CIA, the FBI, the immigration service, the airline regulators, etc.

I was wrong. The Americans still show only mild interest in why their spies failed to penetrate Islamic terrorism and why their airlines were caught off guard by the imagination of the enemy. Recent blunders have shown that reform of the immigration service remains in the future. The United States has gone to war abroad but still understands little about why it was vulnerable at home. Washington has left most of the long-established bureaucrats in place, now co-ordinated by an Office of Homeland Security that has so far impressed no one.

Is it possible that the Americans and the rest of us are losing the sense of Sept. 11 as an event with unique implications? Are we letting it slip into history without learning from it what we need to know? It's natural that we are re-working it imaginatively, transforming it from gaping emotional wound into psychological scar tissue. This probably began with the popular shorthand, "9/11." To me that sounds too much like a convenience store, but apparently it feels comfortable to many people. The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that the language of American teenagers has assimilated Sept. 11: If your room is a mess, "It's ground zero," and if you consider someone's concern petty you say, "That's so Sept. 10." On Sunday. London's Observer ran a parody history of post-Sept. 11 events. It flopped, but you could understand the impulse to let humour soften tragedy.

In public, we continue to take Sept. 11 seriously. Last week the six-month anniversary was commemorated by everything from TV programs to light sculpture in the Manhattan sky. That was remarkable in itself; six-month anniversaries of public events are usually ignored. It may be that we are maintaining the memory of Sept. 11 without fully understanding what it meant.

At first it seemed obvious that airports around the world would become obsessive about security. Unfortunately, nothing like that came to pass. At Heathrow on Feb. 11, two thieves stole $10-million in cash that had just come off a British Airways flight from Bahrain. This week, two others hijacked a security truck and stole $4.7-million in cash shortly after it arrived on a South African Airways flight. Hard though it is to believe, in both cases the criminals made their way into (and out of) Heathrow's special security zone, likely with inside help.

It's startling that ordinary professional thieves (if that's what they were) even attempted such a crime. Why weren't they deterred by the prospect of intense police vigilance, and why weren't they fearful of being mistaken for terrorists and thus deprived of the civil liberties to which career criminals are accustomed? Perhaps they knew something the rest of us are slowly learning, that not much has changed.

Neither the Americans, the Canadians, nor the Europeans have developed anything we could possibly call consistent airline security. In recent months I've been through airports in New York, Berlin, Frankfurt, Nice and London, as well as Toronto and Winnipeg. At Heathrow there was a spot check (say, every 50th person) of carry-on luggage, but other than that (and the spectacle of two or three people sending their shoes through the X-ray machine) it was impossible to see any change.

Before a flight from Toronto to New York, the X-ray machine spotted blunt-ended nail scissors in my shaving kit. The security guard confiscated them, sternly noting that I could put somebody's eyes out with them. At Heathrow two weeks ago, another guard took away my wife's even blunter-ended manicure clippers, for the same reason. These are useless gestures, of course. A ball-point pen (or the broken end of a wine bottle from business class) would work far better as a weapon. The airports believe that harassing us with trivialities will demonstrate their new state of readiness, but it's hard to imagine anyone gullible enough to be convinced. These clumsy gestures only draw attention to the fact that neither the abilities nor the supervision of guards has been improved. More important, there's no evidence (as the shoe-bomber incident demonstrated) that the airlines have developed a sophisticated understanding of who should and who should not be allowed to board an aircraft.

Security work depends on morale, pride and professionalism. Sept. 11 suggested that the spirit of employees in that field, from major executives to ordinary guards, had been eroded by a good-enough-for-government-work attitude. It was universally expected that this relaxed way of doing business would quickly be altered, but real change has yet to take place. Eugen Weber, the great historian of France, a highly demanding teacher, used to sum up in six words the effort he demanded from his students at the University of California at Los Angeles: "Good enough is not good enough." It is a lesson that some of our society's most crucial agencies have not yet absorbed.

Read other articles about the world after September 11 by Robert Fulford.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page
typewriter image