Success in any surreptitious undertaking, be it bank heist or terrorist attack, requires careful planning, audacious implementation, and a fair dose of plain luck. It also requires a permissive environment, with flimsy defenses and guards asleep at their posts. Although observers may differ over the relative proportions, all of these factors were present on 9/11.
That nineteen young men armed with nothing more than box cutters should so easily hijack four commercial airliners and convert them into devastatingly lethal missiles shook Americans to their core. A people accustomed to taking their own collective safety as a given now experienced a sense of naked vulnerability.
No historical antecedent existed to provide an adequate reference point. Reflexive comparisons to Pearl Harbor did not hold up. In December 1941, Americans had learned about the Japanese attack by tuning in to radio bulletins broadcast after the assault itself had ended. In September 2001, they watched with horror events as they actually unfolded. They witnessed people leaping to their deaths. They saw buildings burn and collapse. For those living in Manhattan or Washington, D.C., the experience overwhelmed the senses. They could taste and smell the destruction.
In the performance of their most fundamental mission—defending the homeland—the Bush administration and the world’s largest and ostensibly most sophisticated national security apparatus failed utterly. Yet curiously, in the wake of that failure, not one U.S. official of any rank lost his or her job. No one was reprimanded or demoted. Rallying around the flag and getting on with the business at hand took precedence over fixing accountability.
Was it fair after December 1941 to single out Admiral Husband Kimmel and Lieutenant General Walter Short as personally responsible for the disaster at Pearl Harbor? Probably not. Yet firing these two senior officers and reducing them in rank served at least to acknowledge that an unacceptable failure of leadership had occurred. From the outset of America’s War for the Greater Middle East, the cabinet secretaries and four-star military officers charged with formulating and implementing national security policy had remained largely exempt from accountability—the arbitrary firing of defense secretary Aspin after Mogadishu being the exception that proved the rule. Remarkably, that practice survived the events of 9/11. So those who failed to anticipate or prevent the worst ever direct attack on American soil stayed on the job, if anything accruing even greater authority as the officials to whom the public now turned to “keep America safe.