Column: The Pubic Eye: The Terrorists Are Coming! The Terrorists Are Coming! By Bob Burnett

Friday December 16, 2005

Imagine if Massachusetts’ residents weren’t paying attention when Paul Revere made his famous ride that chilly evening in 1775. Consider where we would be if citizens decided that his cry, “The British are coming! The British are coming!” wasn’t worth bothering about. Revere’s warning is comparable to that issued last week by the 9/11 Commission. They’re bellowing, “The terrorists are coming!” and most Americans could care less. 

On Dec. 5, the “9/11 Public Discourse Project” issued a report on the efforts of the Bush administration and Congress to prevent another attack on the homeland. The original 9/11 commission, five Republicans and five Democrats, went out of business last year, after it delivered its final report. In an unusual move, they garnered private funding and reconstituted themselves as the Public Discourse Project, so they could track progress enacting their recommendations. 

The project concluded, “We are not as safe as we need to be … there is so much more to be done. ... Many obvious steps that the American people assume have been completed, have not been… Some of these failures are shocking.” 

The group’s Republican chair, Thomas Kean, observed, “We believe that the terrorists will strike again. So does every responsible expert that we have talked to … If they do, and these reforms that might have prevented such an attack have not been implemented, what will our excuses be?” 

Of the 41 grades given, there were 17 D’s or F’s. The government’s overall grade was a C-. There were two particularly disturbing findings: One was the “administration’s woeful record in strengthening global counterproliferation efforts to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists.” The other was the failure to adequately fund first responders. Particularly those police, fire, and public health departments in high-risk locales. 

The 9/11 Project observed that the response to Hurricane Katrina demonstrated that the first-responders were not ready for another attack. There has been no progress providing a system “that allows emergency response personnel to communicate reliably and effectively in a crisis.” Similarly there has been inadequate progress establishing a “unified incident command center.” Amazingly the first-responder funding has become a mechanism for dispensing pork to small states. Rather than allocate funds based upon potential risk, Congress has relied on a formula that does not send money where it’s needed. Thus, Wyoming receives $27.80 per resident in homeland security funds, while California receives $8.05 per resident. 

A glaring example is Washington D.C. According to Washington Post columnist Steve Pearlstein, the region has no credible plan “to respond to an attack or a natural disaster, or even an agreement of who will be in charge.”  

Four years after terrorists attacked America, we have not learned our lesson. Despite claims that we have the strongest defense in the world, we remain startlingly vulnerable. Whose fault is this? 

Many blame the Bush administration. The 9/11 Project observed, “Our leadership is distracted.” The administration decided that an invasion of Iraq was the answer to the threat of a domestic terrorist attack. Despite bipartisan warnings that this is disastrously wrong-headed, that remains their focus. 

Congress must also take responsibility. The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs sets the formula for allocation of first-responder money to the states. The committee—headed by Maine Republican Susan Collins and Connecticut “Democrat” Joe Lieberman—has been satisfied with a formula based on pork rather than risk. Further, the Senate has buckled to the chemical industry and refused to pass reasonable standards that would help secure chemical plants from attack. 

Finally, the media must take responsibility. The day after the 9/11 Project issued their alarming report, most American newspapers and TV news programs buried this item. Writing in Editor and Publisher, Greg Mitchell characterized the media response as “underwhelming.” 

Only six of the 40 major U.S. newspapers carried the 9/11 report on their front pages. The Houston Chronicle led with, “Concerns Over Face Transplant Grows.” 

Thomas Jefferson famously cautioned Americans, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” Recently, Jimmy Carter warned about the devastating impact of fundamentalist Christianity on our society. This has impacted preparation for a terrorist attack. Many fundamentalists—about 36 per cent of Americans according to Bill Moyers—believe that America’s problems, such as terrorism, are irrelevant, as we are in the final stages of the “end times.” 

President Bush is a fundamentalist Christian. Perhaps this explains why his administration isn’t protecting America. It’s not the terrorists but the end times that are coming. 

Whatever Bush’s reasoning, the majority of Americans aren’t in the grip of systemic myopia. We still have the time to exercise “eternal vigilance.” If George won’t respond to the 9/11 report, then it’s up to us to demand that Congress take action. Before it is too late. 


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer and activist. He can be reached at bobburnett@comcast.net.