By B.L. Wilson
The documentary film “Are We Safer Today” starts with news footage of the clear blue skies of September 11, 2001, just before the first plane crashes into one of the World Trade Center’s twin towers, the clock showing 8:50 a.m.
George Washington University had a special screening of the documentary at the Elliott School of International Affairs Thursday with three members of the bipartisan National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, better known as the 9/11 Commission. Following the screening, the trio reflected on their participation in one of the largest investigations in U.S. history and the nation’s progress against terrorist attacks in the past 20 years.
Though not a direct answer to the question posed by the film, the panelists expressed that the U.S. faces a more serious threat to democracy because of divisive politics than from international terrorists.
“The crisis calls from all over the country at all levels for people who are willing to serve and get involved [in public service] at a cost to themselves,” said 9/11 Commissioner John Lehman, former secretary of the Navy under President Ronald Reagan. “That’s how you make a difference.”
Elliott School Dean Alyssa Ayers welcomed Lehman and the other 9/11 Commission members, Tim Roemer, former ambassador to India and Indiana congressman; Richard Ben-Veniste, who served as prosecutor for the commission. They were joined by Elliott School Professor of Leadership Ethics and Practice Initiative Chris Kojm, who served as the commission’s deputy staff director.
“We are indebted for their work and the stellar example they set for us all,” Ayers said.
Against the backdrop of towers collapsing, the documentary rapidly touched on the series of events that led to the formation of the 9/11 Commission, which was formed 14 months after the 9/11 attacks after House and Senate investigations failed to answer many of the public’s questions that commission Chair Thomas Kean said included “what led to the terrorist attack on our country that took the lives of almost 3,000 Americans,” and “most importantly, what can be done to prevent future terrorists attacks and how can we make this country safer. This is what our commission intends to do.”
In the panel discussion, the commission members underscored the bipartisan nature of the commission. “We were all picked because we were very active and experienced Democrats and Republicans,” Lehman said, “It was clear to the leadership that this was to be a nonpartisan and thorough investigation.
“We grew up in an era when there was nothing nobler than well educated, well-read people coming out of colleges and universities into public service,” he said.
In reflecting on changes in the past 20 years, he said he thinks the quality of people in public service has declined. “If we don’t rekindle a sense of obligation and nobility in the fact that public service is a calling, we’re going to continue to decline,” he said.
Ben-Veniste said that he thinks it would be “extraordinarily difficult” to conduct a similar bipartisan investigation today on domestic terrorism because the of divisions in the country.
“University is all about opening your mind to ideas and listening and challenging authority in an appropriate way through rational discourse based on facts,” he said. “One thing the 9/11 Commission exemplified is that it is a false comparison, false delusion to equate a vigorous attempt to get to the facts with partisanship. Often that line is now blurred.”
Roemer and the other panelists stressed the role of families of 9/11 victims, some of whom were in the GW audience, not only in bringing pressure to bear on Congress for an independent investigation but also in submitting questions to the commission and ensuring the recommendations were enacted into law.
“Our commission doesn’t get formed, we don’t get our recommendations through, we don’t get our strategy implemented without citizen involvement no matter how good we are, no matter how great our staff is,” he said. “The 9/11 families were our moral compass and our heart and soul and our backbone.”
When asked to compare the 9/11 Commission to the Select Committee on January 6, the panelists found the Watergate hearings more analogous than the Commission’s investigation.
“Given the political environment we’re in, the January 6 Select Committee has done a good job,” Roemer said, “explaining to the American people that this was not a dust up, that this was not a regular event in American life. This was an attack on the constitution and the peaceful transfer of power we’ve had for 245 years.”