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Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Missing the Point of the 9/11 Commission

Reading about Giuliani's appearance before a 9/11 commission hearing yeaterday reminded me of an important point:

"Our enemy is not each other, but the terrorists who attacked us," Giuliani told the panel. The mayor acknowledged there were "terrible mistakes" made on Sept. 11, but attributed that to the unprecedented circumstances.

"The blame should clearly be directed at one source and one source alone, the terrorists who killed our loved ones," Giuliani said as family members broke into applause.

Commission member James Thompson, before questioning Giuliani, said the panel was "not engaged in a search for blame, not engaged in a search for villains." Instead, he said, the commission hoped to save the lives of other Americans -- a comment that drew more applause.

Giuliani here is stating the obvious and misreading what the commission is supposed to be about. Yes, we all know that the terrorists perpetrated the 9/11 attacks and they're very bad for having done that. But at the same time, we need government agencies that are effective in dealing with such catastrophes. Most people are willing to give the NYC first-responders a break because of the unprecedented scale of the attack they had to deal with. Even so, it helps to revisit what happened and what could have been handled better by the authorities in order to ensure that we're better prepared for future strikes so that, as Thompson says, fewer people die.

This is a delicate task. Saying the response was "not worthy of the Boy Scouts," as commission member John Lehman did on Tuesday, does not help. Nor, however, does constantly invoking the terrorists' 100% blame, nor does implying that any attempt to learn from what happened that day constitutes defiling the memory/heroism of those who lost their lives. It is, rather, an effort to promote good governance.

The raw emotions make me wonder whether holding a hearing one mile from Ground Zero was such a great idea.