September 24, 2018

Hillary, Jeb and 9/11

Of all the places to be when Donald Trump said George W. Bush bore some responsibility for 9/11, I happened to be at the National September 11 Memorial Museum in Manhattan.

It’s pretty hard to stand beside a wall marked by 2,983 tiles — each painted a different shade of blue to symbolize the number of victims lost both in the 2001 attacks and in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing — and understand what Jeb Bush meant when he said his brother “kept us safe.”

The concrete wall serves as a repository for some 8,000 victims’ remains. Spelled out across its face, in letters made from metal recovered from the site, is a line from Virgil’s “Aenaid”: “No Day Shall Erase You From the Memory of Time.”

Jeb wasn’t trying to erase the victims’ names, God forbid, from memory. But he was trying to erase our memory of time itself. His brother had been president for nine months before Sept. 11, 2001. He did not keep us safe.

How much responsibility does George W. Bush bear for what happened that day? We still can’t be sure. But the answer is more than what his brother and defenders think — which is none — and less than what his critics would like to believe — 100 percent. The same is true for Hillary Clinton’s husband, Bill. Both the Clinton and Bush administrations passed up opportunities to take more forceful action against Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

Their lapses, failures, screw-ups and neglect have been well documented by intelligence officials, journalists and historians. The 9/11 Commission Report itself includes an implicit criticism of the former presidents. 

“Given the character and pace of their policy efforts,” wrote the authors, “we do not believe they fully understood just how many people al-Qaeda might kill, and how soon it might do it.”

This is what the commission was referring to when it gently termed 9/11 a result of inadequate imagination, policy and planning.

The 9/11 museum organizers had to thread a similar political needle, but they stuck it into the wall. As you go through the exhibition hall, the first displays are of the massive loss and damage: severed columns, a length of I-beam twisted back on itself as if it were a willow twig. If that’s what happens to steel, your mind is forced to ponder the fate of human flesh. 

Just as the carnage pushes you to ask how and why, the exhibition focuses on the perpetrators, al-Qaeda, and the American government. Against one wall, at about shin level, is a reproduction of the Aug. 6, 2001, memo Bush received, titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the United States.”

The description of the redacted memo takes pains to indicate that it is just one of dozens of such warnings and memos a president receives, and it contained no specifics as to a time and place. To some people, that earns Bush a pass. To others, it begs the question: Isn’t leadership about setting priorities and knowing where to focus? The No. 1 job of the federal government is the security of the United States. Bush didn’t make the al-Qaeda threat a priority.

We’ll never know what the results would have been if Bush had told the State Department official who carried the Aug. 6 memo to his Texas ranch, “I’m gonna get on this.” Instead, he took the memo, infamously said, “All right, you’ve covered your ass, now,” and carried on with business as usual.

But let’s do a thought experiment: If 9/11 happened nine months into an Obama administration, does anyone really think Jeb Bush would be saying, in that case, “Obama kept us safe?” And does anyone think Obama wouldn’t acknowledge, as George W. Bush never has, his share of responsibility? Our nation’s toxic political discourse poisons the chance for an honest, dispassionate assessment of our failures. 

Why this all matters becomes achingly apparent as you walk through the 9/11 memorial. The individual names inscribed in the reverse fountains that mark the footprint where the Twin Towers stood are haunting. But what stopped me in my tracks was a firefighter’s hatchet on display. Recovered under the rubble, it was scarred by fire, twisted, the metal deeply pitted by debris. It told the whole story of the unfathomable courage of the 411 first responders who died in the collapse. We owe the dead a full accounting.

And this, too, is the lesson of the memorial: If it happened once, it could happen again.

Suicide terrorism is a part of modern life. It happened again in Israel this week, last week in Iraq, before that in Turkey. Whether it is a woman with a knife, a boy with a vest or 19 men on four jumbo jets, the threat is not going away anytime soon. We now live in a world where we can’t afford, not for a second, for our imagination to fail us. 

If Hillary and Jeb can’t discuss how Bill and George could have done a better job keeping us safe, then how can we trust them to do better? And how can Jeb imagine the next attack if he can’t even imagine his brother saying, “I’m sorry”?


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.