A few months ago, when the 9/11 Commission released footage of the communications between several command centers and the transportation network during the dramatic minutes of September 11, one phrase chilled me to the bones. It summarized how unprepared America was to face to the Jihadist onslaught. A pilot of an F-16 rushing to the scene over the Pentagon screamed on his radio: "God, the Russians had us...they had us."
Since the end of the 1990s, Americans, were subjected to a campaign of intellectual subversion. The Jihadist factor, although identified by U.S. intelligence agencies as the driving force behind terrorism throughout the past decade, didn't make it into the national psyche. Hence, this American jet pilot automatically blamed "Russians," even 11 years after the end of the Cold War.
The 9/11 Commission had a historic opportunity to confront this reality last week. After nearly two years, the U.S.-mandated entity assessed the threat and attempted to reveal how we failed to prevent this catastrophe. I had the privilege to be invited by the commission to participate in a select pre-briefing on Thursday, July 22, along with former administration officials and VIPs. The two commissioners who summarized the report to us described the "failures" preceding the 9/11 strikes. At least, and to the credit of this committee, it did not blame everything on Washington's foreign policy. The committee did not capitulate to "academic elites" from coast to coast, who attempted to portray bin Laden's mini-genocide as a "response to America's foolish behavior.” That, alone is a step forward. We didn't fall into the trap of self-flagellation, nor we did succumb to the Wahhabi Lobby's pressures. At least until now.
The commissioners blamed 9/11 on a failure of "management" and a failure of "policy.” Indeed, not responding to the terrorist threat during the Clinton years proved perilous. It logically led to mismanagement of crisis. If you don't act in response to the enemy, you will encourage him. That was what happened in the 1990s. Not responding to the 1993 attacks led to a series of additional attacks around the world, culminating in the 1998 embassy bombings. Responding inappropriately that summer (bombing a factory in Sudan and bombing an empty tent in Afghanistan) emboldened the Jihad warriors. The strike against the USS Cole was their next move. The silence that followed the naval attack hastened Mohammed Atta's plans. Bad policies (Bill Clinton's policies) led to mismanagement.
Rightly, the commission blamed the two technical failures on a deeper one: A failure they said, of the "imagination." They argued that the 9/11 attacks surpassed our imagination as a government and as a people. "The scale of the resources was non-proportional with what we can absorb," they felt. They concluded, "Our leaders didn't understand the gravity of the threat." Hence, politically speaking, no one is really responsible for not meeting the challenge, neither the Clinton nor the Bush administrations. "Every one in office was somehow responsible," stated all the commissioners.
In a sense, this is a psychological technique to pull the nation together. In times like these, uniting Americans by blaming our lack of imagination as a whole may have merit. But historians will dispute this conclusion. I do, too. A nation that won two world wars against Fascism and Nazism, one Cold War against Soviet Communism, put men on the moon and leapt into the 21st century with its unsurpassed technology, is not without imagination. A culture that produced Hollywood and the internet can only be described as overly imaginative. So, was it really a failure of imagination? Or was it rather a crisis of political education? I believe it was the latter.
When an FBI agent rushed to her supervisors to inform them that "Saudi men" were learning to fly but not land airplanes, no one lifted a finger. Agents were told that CIA analysts were receiving cable after cable indicating that Jihadist elements were mounting operations against the mainland, and possibly planning to use planes. But the agency's political bosses had not produced guidelines to help the analysts properly recognize the terrorist threat. In 1998, bin Laden himself declared war against infidel America. The White House did not hear and Congress did not see. Back in 1994, a former CNN journalist, now an MSNBC Terrorism analyst, Steven Emerson, filmed Jihad preachers in New York calling for violence and showed it to the nation. Not only was there no response, but Wahhabi political factions began systematically lobbying against a crackdown. Worse, all experts who attempted to warn America were suppressed by Arabist-Islamist factions. The Wahhabi Lobby claimed that, "warning from the Jihad threat was a cover for pro-Zionist propaganda to advance Israel's interests!" Overall, the American public was denied every single opportunity to be educated.
Americans have a great imagination. What the U.S. lacked was a basic education about Jihadist terror, the worse enemy we have met, the enemy who visited destruction upon New York and Washington in 2001. The pilot that morning embodied the state of America’s education about radical Islam and terrorism, not the state of our imagination. Some academic elites had insisted that after the Soviet Union collapsed, the West had no real enemies. Hence, the last foe the pilot knew was Russia. Don't blame him for what he said when he saw the smoke over the capital and Manhattan. He, along with millions of Americans, was told for a whole decade that Islamic Fundamentalism isn't a threat. Al-Qaeda was attacking us from one side, and our educators were failing us from the other.
Walid Phares is a Professor of Middle East Studies and a Terrorism Analyst. His analysis are posted on www.walidphares.com