Archive for Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Blame game benefits no one

April 20, 2004


Not to trivialize a serious matter, but the hearings of the Sept. 11 commission have begun to remind me of one of Smokey Robinson's less famous hits. It's called "Who's Gonna Take the Blame."

Over the last month, the men and women in the hot seat have spent as much time pointing fingers at one another as they have analyzing the lessons of the terrorist attacks. What should have been a search for facts has instead become an exercise in pinning, and trying not to be pinned by, blame.

Who was responsible for Sept. 11?

Thomas Pickard, former acting director of the FBI, blamed Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft; Ashcroft blamed his predecessor, Janet Reno; everybody blamed the CIA except those who were too busy blaming the FBI. Former counterterrorism official Richard Clarke famously blamed himself and then everybody else in sight. Some pundits blame President Bush, but he's not having it. Offered multiple chances to express contrition at last week's press conference, the leader of the free world pretended he hadn't heard the questions.

It was, I suppose, eminently predictable that the events of that awful morning would devolve to this. It's probably just some vestigial innocence, some remnant of naivete, that ever had me hoping we wouldn't stray down this path.

Since we have, it might be useful to remind ourselves that the answer to the question of the day is actually rather simple. Who was responsible for Sept. 11? A fellow named Osama bin Laden and a terrorist group called al-Qaida.

That's not to suggest there isn't some value in deconstructing the attacks and our failure to head them off. On the contrary, few things could be more urgent or more important. But to frame it as a search for a smoking gun, a hunt for the one person whose incompetence brought us to tragedy, is to miss the point.

I mean, if one is truly insistent on finding someone to hang this on, it's not hard. This atrocity has many fathers.

Blame the CIA for not penetrating the world of Arab extremism, blame the FBI for not taking more seriously a field agent's concerns about a suspicious Muslim flight student, blame the present president for not acting expeditiously on an ominous intelligence briefing, blame the former president for not moving more aggressively against bin Laden, blame the American people for not realizing that stateless fanatics considered themselves at war with us.

But note, even as you spread your blame, that not even Clarke, who has spread blame as widely as anyone, is willing to guarantee that what happened on Sept. 11 could have reasonably been headed off. There is an excellent chance that we could have done all the things we now wish we'd done and still awakened to that nightmare.

We are all to blame. We are none of us to blame.

Because the ultimate failure of that day wasn't in what someone did or didn't do, but rather, a failure of imagination. Before Sept. 11, most of us simply couldn't conceive of someone using airliners as missiles. It was the stuff of action novels and summer movies. It was too preposterous to be real.

We have since learned better. And our education has come at a ruinous cost.

That cost has left me impatient with the egos and agendas of Washington functionaries, intolerant of jockeying for political advantage, vexed by buck-passing and butt-covering. This is not Abscam or Iran Contra or even the Lewinsky matter. So the response ought not be Washington gamesmanship as usual.

Nearly 3,000 people died on Sept. 11. There is no official whose head on a pike will make us feel better about that.

So the most important thing we can do is learn the lessons of that tragedy and put them into action with all deliberate speed.

The best way to memorialize the terrorist attack that came two and a half years ago is to prevent the one that's on the way.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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