21 years after 9/11: Do our leaders still understand keeping Americans safe is government’s first job?

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On 9/10/01, the NYPD could boast over a 60% drop in crime since the heights of the 1990s. Murders alone were down over 65 percent. 

The city had momentum – “the city on a hill” had arrived. Terrorism was something that happened far away, generally in the Middle East.

Then came that day in September, and the entire NYPD apparatus shifted on its axis. Suddenly, the department had yet another public safety mission: counterterrorism. Over 1,000 officers were reassigned to hardening the city against another attack. There would be a steep learning curve.  Something, the critics mused, would have to give. No way the NYPD could do it all. 

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But a funny thing happened: it did. While the NYPD laser-focused on this new mandate, crime somehow kept dropping. It was a triumph of management, leadership, and hard work by the troops.  But really, it came down to a single word: will. The leaders in NYC evinced the iron determination to make sure New York City did not have another 9/11 – and did not slide back to 1990. We could do both. Too much blood had been spilled.

FILE –  Aug. 16, 2021: NYPD officer Michael Dougherty, a 25-year veteran, second from right, patrols with his colleagues beside the south reflecting pool of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum where names of his deceased colleagues and friends are displayed.
(AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Working as I did for the police commissioner for a time, and then for 15 years in intelligence, I saw this ebb and flow firsthand.  

As the New York papers initially trumpeted the signs of the inevitable return to the “bad old days,” the realization gradually took hold that things could go on – our city could keep getting better. The result, as we’ve heard so often, was “the safest big city in America.”  After the worst domestic attack in U.S. history! That’s not B.S. fake movie toughness. That’s true toughness. 

There was the national version of all this, too. Despite their attempts, terrorists were unable to duplicate anything near to 9/11. The large, unwieldy federal counterterrorism apparatus found its footing, and the “new era of terrorism” we all expected was held off, both at home and overseas.  It was again due to many factors, but it was primarily down to that same attribute: will. 

It’s gone, folks. As a city – as a nation – we appear to have lost that will.  We’ve forgotten not just the horror of the attacks, but of how hard-won public safety is. In the name of feckless, infantile policies hectored into existence by a vocal few, our leaders everywhere seem content to let it all fall apart. Taking the nation’s prospects and prosperity with it.  

On this 21st anniversary of 9/11, America has never felt so vulnerable.

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Let’s start locally. In our cities, crime is rising everywhere.  It’s not just New York, with its disastrous “bail reform.”  A fetishistic national competition has developed in excuse-making.  In California, the state legislature just sent a bill to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk that would deny the use of rap lyrics in criminal prosecutions. (Meanwhile, storeowners in San Francisco have threatened to withhold taxes if something isn’t done to clean things up.  In San Francisco!)  In St. Louis, the DA recently said she was too busy to prosecute the killer of a retired cop.  Portland, Chicago, L.A, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Seattle, Memphis, New Orleans… they’re all trending strongly more dangerous.  Trending towards unlivable. 

Unsurprisingly, police are retiring in droves, and recruitment is below replacement levels. Fewer cops, fewer jail beds, activist prosecutors and judges, a fearful populace… these are not right-wing talking points or barroom cop gripes.  These are facts.  America is losing its cities, our crown jewels of culture, commerce, and opportunity.

The same lack of will is evident on the counterterrorism front.  The Biden administration trumpeted the Afghanistan pullout as a success. Tell that to the 13 U.S. soldiers and 170 Afghans killed during that slipshod operation (deaths that, according to recent reporting, a simple effort at government coordination could’ve prevented).  Our Afghan facilitators – in some cases, U.S. citizens – are either still stuck in-country or in internment camps around the world.  What ally will trust us going forward? 

Afghanistan is again a terrorist haven. Of course Zawahiri’s death is a welcome event.  But the fact that he was in Kabul, as a guest of the Taliban, tells us all we need to know about conditions there. As a colleague of mine once said: “The further we get from 9/11, the closer we get to 9/10.”  Exactly. Afghanistan is returning to its condition on 9/10/01. This time, strengthened with billions in U.S. materiel. 

FILE – Ground Zero

FILE – Ground Zero
(Getty Images)

At home, there is our border. That terrorist entities have crossed there is undeniable. The 9/11 hijackers had to scheme their way into the country.  We are potentially inviting the next group of terrorists in – and handing them mobile phones and hotel vouchers. 

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Iran is the one nation on earth that is both sanctioned as a terrorist state and that either has or is close to having the bomb.  They’re also the only nation that has sent its people to kill American officials on US soil.  They also tried to kill the Saudi ambassador here – with the plot launched from… Mexico.  They harbored al Qaeda’s leadership post-9/11.  Yet we are about to re-enter a deal that only the most credulous could believe will hinder their secret nuclear activities. 

But Iran’s not the problem! We hear.  The 9/11 attackers were mostly Saudis!  Not to worry. When the White House was planning the recent presidential trip to the Gulf, neither Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman nor Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed of the UAE would take Biden’s calls.  When the president eventually did arrive, King Salman of Saudi Arabia would barely meet with him. Yes, MbS is no saint.  But Biden reiterating – during the trip! – his pledge to make Saudi Arabia “a pariah” was yet another unforced error. 

So we’ve managed to alienate our Sunni allies as well — our best counterbalance to Iran – while pursuing a ludicrously utopian energy policy.  After the historic success of the Abraham accords, the Middle East grows less stable every day. More lessons forgotten.

President Joe Biden (L) being welcomed by Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (R) at Alsalam Royal Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on July 15, 2022. 

President Joe Biden (L) being welcomed by Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (R) at Alsalam Royal Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on July 15, 2022. 
(Royal Court of Saudi Arabia / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

History has shown that in America, if you look hard enough, there’s hope. There are clear-eyed voices out there — leaders who recognize all this, who get it, who demonstrate the resolve to prioritize our national security.  Whether they gain the leverage to restore some sanity is an issue entirely up to the voters.  November is not far off. Neither is 2024.

And while we await the adults, let’s remember that they’re not the country – we are. 

Closer to the ground, there’s the WTC Health Program, funded by the federal government and run by extremely dedicated doctors, nurses, and administrators. I know I speak for many when I say that I couldn’t be more grateful for their dedication.    

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There are allies, too, where you might least expect. Comedian and former “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart, who I almost certainly disagree with on all things political, has worked hard to advocate for those injured on 9/11. There are others like him. Memory is not sectarian.  Those who choose to remember, can.  

So while our leaders fiddle, there are those who haven’t forgotten. They need to be recognized. Because my sense is, as this 21st anniversary comes and goes, we’re going to need a lot more of them. Soon.

Editor’s note: Shortly after 9/11 author Paul Mauro wrote a piece about his experiences at Ground Zero, which can be viewed here

CLICK HERE TO READ MORE FROM PAUL MAURO

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