Threats from within on the Fifth Anniversary of September 11th

Has it been five years? The date seems too prominent in my memory for it to be half a decade away already. For most of us Americans, even if we did not live in New York or Washington, the events of September 11, 2001 left a permanent impression in our minds. Move over Kennedy Assassination and Challenger Disaster. The tragic events of this day eclipsed all of them.

I have been in both the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Until I ran out of web space, I hosted pictures of myself and my family on the observation deck of the World Trade Center during the spring of 2000. Far from being bustling, the twin towers seemed serene by Manhattan standards. You could stand in the courtyard, crane your head way, way up and try to see the top floors. Do it for too long and your neck was sure to hurt. They seemed as permanent as the pyramids of Egypt.

Not only have I visited the Pentagon, I worked there for nine years. Perhaps it was just as well that by 1998 I had grown frustrated and left for better opportunities with the Department of Health and Human Services. While the office I worked at there was not one of the ones destroyed (in fact that office relocated to another building a few miles away before September 11th) I could have easily found other work in the Pentagon. So I too could have been one of the 125 deaths in the Pentagon who died that day. Many times when I was enjoying a bit of the bucolic during my lunch hour in the Pentagon’s center courtyard (ironically referred to as “Ground Zero”) I would watch turboprops buzz a few hundred feet overhead on approach to Reagan National Airport. I wondered how air traffic controllers could direct airplanes to fly directly over the Pentagon. One bomb dropped from one of these airplanes could also have wreaked massive havoc to our national security.

On September 11th, 2001 itself I was busy at work in my office in Washington, D.C. At the time I worked on the National Mall at the headquarters of the Department of Health and Human Services. It was one of our contract employees who told me something about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. We went into one of the conference rooms that had a big screen TV and watched CNN in horror. We heard not only that the Pentagon had been hit, but that other planes were coming our way. Many of us ended up outside. We could see grayish white smoke from the Pentagon crash to our west, waffling up into a surreal crystal clear blue sky. Many people were frantically calling on their cell phones. Few succeeded in getting through. Eventually we just started bugging out of town, thinking that if we could just get home we would at least be safe. (One of the surprising aspects of the day was that Dan, the guy who drove our vanpool, managed to do it at all. It would be the last day he would drive the vanpool. The next day he was in the hospital for tests. Less than a month later has was dead, not from terrorism, but from pancreatic cancer.)

I steeled up my nerves and returned to the office the next day. The truth was that after that terrible day I never felt comfortable working in Washington, D.C. again. My feelings were exacerbated when we moved to another building in Southwest D.C. From my window I could look down on a steady stream of anonymous railroad cars entering and leaving the District. I frequently wondered if any of them would explode outside my window.

So I started looking in earnest for civil servant jobs in the suburbs. My current position with the U.S. Geological Survey here in Reston, Virginia is a direct effect of that day five years ago today. While I feel safe at work again, I do not feel safe like I did before September 11th. I am still occasionally unnerved. Last week, for example, the power went out in our building. My first though was to wonder if some terrorist incident was to blame.

With five years hindsight I can say that I overreacted. I was born during the Cold War. Until it ended some fifteen years ago, I lived with the abstract but very real threat that my life could end at any moment as a result of a nuclear missile strike. For most of us, September 11th made the fears that foreigners could actually kill us here on our home soil very concrete rather than abstract. I also believe that if you were one of the couple million people like me who experienced the attacks firsthand, however removed, the threat became particularly personified.

I have already put together my thoughts on what it would really take to win the War on Terror. Three thousand deaths as a result of three incidents on one day is a lot of people. Although every life lost that day (except for the perpetrators) was precious, five years later it may be helpful to put those deaths in perspective. 3000 deaths were 3000 more Americans than died on our home soil as a result of the Cold War. However, your odds of being one of the victims of September 11th were roughly 1 in 100,000. Those are pretty good odds, even if you work in New York City or Washington. That is why I am one of many advocating we concentrate resources to prevent terrorists from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. It is an obvious strategy for which this administration has given short shrift. We want to prevent the type of war that kills millions and rips apart a nation on all levels. Our own Civil War is a painful example of what not to do. Had you been alive then, your odds of dying in the war were 1 in 100. When it was over, our country and our economy were in ruins. Perhaps our greatest national security threat is not from outside, but from within.

And speaking of threats from within, what about deaths that we inflict on each other? While they cannot be classified as acts of terrorism, they are equally as lethal. There are 78 deaths from firearms in our country every day. Some are a result of suicide, but most are homicides. If we could cut our firearm death rates to those of Western Europe, we could prevent the equivalent of one September 11th every 43 days.

Arguably, preventable deaths should be equally as tragic as homicides. Nearly as many Americans die of mostly preventable cardiovascular diseases every day (2566) than were killed on September 11th. According to the CDC, tobacco smoking kills 1200 Americans daily. Some would argue these deaths amount to a peculiar form of suicide, since the risks are known and prevention strategies can be adopted. Is a wife’s suffering over the loss of a husband who died of obesity, alcohol or smoking any less than some wife who lost their husband as a result of terrorism? These judgments are hard to make, but I would say no.

On this fifth anniversary, I am still struck by the need to develop an effective strategy for dealings with the terrorist threat. It is clear that our strategy to date has been wasteful, largely ineffective and generally counterproductive. Yet I am also seeing potentially greater threats that we are giving short shrift. While we try to prevent external threats, let us also be mindful of the cancers like poverty, racism and polarization by income or values. They are harder to detect but are far more likely to kill our nation.

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