There will be no politicians at the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. They are no longer invited. Organizers of the memorial have now decided that they want to make the solemn events more intimate. The decision also reflects the continuing struggle between New York City, New York state, and New Jersey over the memorial, the museum, control of the site, and, as a consequence, the memory of 9/11. Last year, on this same day, the political grandstanding got so outlandish that it led to a showdown between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Michael Bloomberg over the choice of readings.
But, whatever the motivation, the United States may be ready for a change on how to remember 9/11 too. It is time to make it personal again, to make it less an event or even a call to action. The burden of tragedy is private, but the 9/11 families lost possession of a day that was ultimately theirs. So many of them -- embracing new lives, spouses, children, professions, but forever cognizant that it might have been so much different -- have, at long last, carried on. America needs to do the same.
This last decade has been summed up by a series of mottos that captured its zeitgeist. The War on Terror. Mission Accomplished. With Us or Against Us. The Surge. Heck of a Job. One Percent Doctrine. Red (Orange, Yellow, Green, Purple, Hazy) Alert. The System Worked. Security Theater. Bin Laden Is Dead.
But surely none has so animated the way we think about, and organize around, America's security than the two words uttered by President George W. Bush as early as Sept. 14, 2001, and repeated to defend policies as far ranging as the war in Iraq to the establishment of the NYPD's massive counterterrorism unit: Never Again.
"Never again." It is as simplistic as it is absurd. It is as vague as it is damaging. No two words have provided so little meaning or context; no catchphrase has so warped policy discussions that it has permanently confused the public's understanding of homeland security. It convinced us that invulnerability was a possibility.
The notion that policies should focus almost exclusively on preventing the next attack has also masked an ideological battle within homeland-security policy circles between "never again" and its antithesis, commonly referred to as "shit happens" but in polite company known as "resiliency." The debate isn't often discussed this way, and not simply because of the bad language. Time has not only eased the pain of that day, but there have also been no significant attacks. "Never again" has so infiltrated public discourse that to even acknowledge a trend away from prevention is considered risky, un-American. Americans don't do "Keep Calm and Carry On." But if they really want security, the kind of security that is sustainable and realistic, then they are going to have to.
I have spent most of my career in counterterrorism and homeland security in both state and federal government. And though it may look thoughtless, even numbingly dumb at times, there is actually a theory behind it. Homeland security has rested on four key activities: prevention, protection, response, and recovery. And while the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) -- created in 2003 out of some 40 agencies -- is part of the national security apparatus, it is as much about the "homeland" as it is about "security."
There is little acknowledgment of the almost impossible balance that homeland security seeks to maintain every day. A country like the United States -- a federal structure with 50 governors all kings unto themselves, hundreds of cities with transit systems that only function when on time, commercial activity across borders that makes Amazon.com so successful and gas so plentiful, respect (sometimes nodding) for civil rights and civil liberties, the flow of people and goods taken as a God-given right, and, oh yes, public money in an economic downturn that must be distributed to not only security efforts but schools, health care, transportation, and every other issue that people care about -- was never going to succeed at "never again." But somehow that's what Americans bought into. The terrorist attacks on 9/11 and the fear that animated so many decisions then made us forget this obvious fact: As a nation, we are built unsafe.