BLOOMINGTON — For the first time in 10 years, members of the 9/11 Commission gathered this week to discuss their report and the state of national security two decades after the terrorist attacks on the United States.
The commission members spent Monday and Tuesday on Indiana University’s Bloomington campus, speaking with students and filming a series of discussions at the IU Auditorium for an upcoming documentary examining whether we are safer today than in 2001, when terrorists hijacked four airplanes and successfully attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
“Yes and no,” said Richard Ben-Veniste, a former special prosecutor during the Watergate scandal. “Yes, we are safer in my view in resisting the attacks by non-state entities against the United States. ... For all of the horrendous loss of life, and resulting anguish and horror and economic damage that 9/11 caused, I do not believe that al-Qaeda ever posed an existential threat to the United States of America. What we have seen on Jan. 6, in my opinion, does pose such an existential threat. And the reason why we don’t have a 9/11 Commission to look at Jan. 6, and the surrounding reasons for it, and the reasons why it has not been universally condemned, and universally investigated, are a very troubling subject to me personally, and to many, many Americans of my generation.”
The commission members spoke with many students who were not yet born on Sept. 11, 2001, when attacks were carried out in New York City and Washington, D.C., and another one was thwarted over Pennsylvania, resulting in the crash of Flight 93 into a field. Over the course of their discussions, the members reminded the young people in front of them that current problems are not hopeless, but will require real civic engagement to make a difference.
“I think we have an obligation to try and make them understand this is a country in distress and it is not working as well as it should,” commission vice-chair and former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton said. “We’ve got to do better. And the question is, how can we do better?”
“This is history for them,” said 9/11 Commission Chairman and former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean. “Understanding the time of great crisis, that we’re Republicans and Democrats who came together to deal with the crisis, shows them I hope that it can be done. And it’s not hopeless. ... That takes people standing up, understanding the problems and being willing to make some sacrifices, too.”
Jamie Gorelick, a former deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, echoed the call for civic engagement. “Everybody here has said that the families pushing for this are what made the (9/11) commission possible,” Gorelick said. “Any individual on this campus, any student, can be a leader in ensuring that we have transparency, that we know what happened and why on anything that is challenging us, and that we take the steps through civic engagement to make the changes that are necessary.”
The discussions showed the importance of holding events related to 9/11 in locations across the country, and not just in New York City and Washington, D.C.
“The events in New York certainly had a profound impact on New York,” Hamilton said in the interview. “But it also impacts all of us. We’re one nation. We’re not divided into states. We are the United States. So if I live in South Dakota, or Wyoming, or New York City, we’re all in it together. And I think that’s an important thing for us to understand. ... The problems are of such complexity and difficulty that you need everybody to stand up and to step up to deal with (them).”
The commission members paid effusive praise to Mary Fetchet, founding director of the Voices Center for Resilience, who lost her son Brad to the Sept. 11 attacks, as well as others who lost loved ones and pushed their government to find answers. Brad was 24 when he died in the World Trade Center.
Fetchet reminded Americans that we’re still dealing with the horrors of 9/11. According to her, more than 83,000 people experienced health issues due to the events that transpired that day and in the aftermath, while over 4,700 have since died.
“So, we’re not over 9/11, even 20 years later,” Fetchet said. “We provide long-term support services to those families, responders and survivors.”
“With the anniversary of the establishment of the commission and the release of the report, it’s really important to take the time now to document the extensive work that the commission did and the tireless efforts of their staff who are focused in the variety of areas that really needed examination,” Fetchet said. “They accomplished so much in such a short period of time that it’s really remarkable.”
For the students who got a chance to listen to and speak with the commission members, the discussions were both informative and inspiring.
“The fact that (the members) still have faith in the system, even as they’ve seen it progress and evolve over the past 20 years, is also in a way reassuring and reestablishes my faith in a system that I have kind of lost faith in, to be honest, over the last few years,” Madison McEwen said.
The discussion at the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies ended with Hamilton placing his faith in the young people in front of him.
“I’m greatly encouraged and pleased because of you,” said Hamilton, one of the school’s namesakes. “... I’ve done my work. I can’t do it anymore. It’s up to you. And I’m counting on you to make this country a great country, to sustain its reputation and the impact we have on the world. We’re really counting on you, and so many other Americans and so many other countries. Everywhere you go, they want to know, ‘What’s the position of the United States?’ They’re still looking to us as the great beacon of how things should be done. It’s up to you. I’m counting on you. I’m on your side.”