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Thursday, September 11

The wound that does not heal

I always find it hard to mourn those who died on 9/11 without being overwhelmed with hatred for the people who caused their death or contributed to it through negligence or incompetence. So to overcome the hatred I developed a tradition for myself of dwelling on the courage, competence, civic responsibility and self-sacrifice that also marks this day.

From the first responders on duty, to the off-duty police, medical technicians, firemen, and government workers who raced to the Pentagon and World Trade Center, to the heroism of the passengers and crew of United Flight 93, to the civilian New Yorkers who ran toward the towers instead of away from them in their determination to help, to the thousands of Americans from all over the country who jumped in a car or got on a bus or train and headed for New York to help in any way they could.

I review the stories and recall faces of people who told of their part in the crisis -- how they survived it, how they helped. And I always remember England-born Rick Rescorla, who anticipated both attacks on the World Trade Center, whose evacuation plan, evacuation drills and leadership saved thousands of lives on 9/11, and who died saving others that day. I think of the songs he sung to keep up the spirits of people he led away from the shadow of death; among those songs, God Bless America and this one:

Men of Cornwall stop your dreaming;
Can't you see their spear points gleaming?
See their warriors' pennants streaming
To this battlefield.
Men of Cornwall stand ye steady;
It cannot be ever said ye
for the battle were not ready;
Stand and never yield!

As the sun sets on September 11 it's also my tradition to imagine John P. O'Neill, not as he died in the collapse of the South Tower but sitting at his favorite table at Elaine's, drinking wine. I raise a glass of wine to toast the man who tried to stop this awful day from happening.

This morning I found a great story about John O'Neill told by Alan I. Baron in his 2003 review of Murray Weiss's The Man Who Warned America. Baron met O'Neill in 1987 when he was named special counsel to the House of Representatives for the impeachment proceedings against then-federal judge Alcee Hastings. The men remained friends for the rest of O'Neill's life. Baron recounts:
O'Neill's encyclopedic knowledge of the terrorist threat was legendary among his colleagues. Weiss points out that when the Oklahoma City bombing occurred, O'Neill quickly recognized that this was a domestic, rather than an international act of terrorism.

There is more to that story, however, than Weiss recounts. John decorated his FBI office in New York with numerous colorful memorabilia from his meetings abroad with foreign law enforcement and counterterrorist officials. On a visit there, I noticed a simple block of Lucite on a table with a scrap of paper embedded in it. John said it was a gift that an agent working the Oklahoma City bombing case had sent to him after the case was solved.

The scrap of paper was part of the agent's notes of a conversation he had had with John right after the bombing. John had been asked by the agent who he thought might have been involved. I looked more closely at the scrap of paper. On it the agent had written the name John had given him: Tim McVeigh.
The story caused me to remember Jayna Davis and her investigations, and the unsettling fact that with no national day of mourning for the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing to call up widespread reviews of the attack, the clues that Davis found, and the questions she raised, are barely a footnote to the events of that day.

Which well suits those who stamped "Case Closed" on a connection between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein and the escalating terrorist attacks on America on February 26, 1993, April 19, 1995 and September 11, 2001.

What would John O'Neill have thought of Jayna's conclusions? A little more than a month before the Oklahoma City massacre he had begun investigations that would result in his warning that Osama bin Laden was preparing to mount an attack on the United States.

Those were early days; the complex terrain of terrorist connections was a long way from being mapped. Had he been able to stay with the FBI John would probably be alive today; in that event, it would have been interesting to see whether he'd advise a second look at the Oklahoma City bombing plot.

At the stroke of midnight I will raise my glass in another toast: to President George W. Bush, who rallied a frightened nation in the wake of 9/11;

Who terrified the terrorists and the rest of the world into pondering the consequences if there was another attack on U.S. soil during his watch;

Who more than any other person saved Islam by ordering attacks that provoked the terrorists into showing their true face, until Muslims all over the world recoiled in horror from the sight of self-styled Muslims butchering Muslim innocents in the name of Islam. Until the cry went up in many languages, "This is not my religion!";

Who revolutionized the U.S. intelligence community's approach to analyzing terrorist attacks by designating them asymmetrical warfare covertly supported by rouge states;

Who unlike his sleepwalking predecessor demanded daily in-person briefings by the head of the Central Intelligence Agency from the first day he sat in the Oval Office;

Who called in every marker with the world's international banking community, which saved this nation from economic disaster in the critical week after the 9/11 attack;

Who in the midst of war oversaw the reorganization of the U.S. military to bring it out of the Cold War era -- a job that his sleepwalking predecessor should have done;

Who prevented the U.S. government from falling apart while many Congress members and intelligence, military, and diplomatic officials fought each other to cover up their incompetence and negligence in the decade running up to 9/11;

Who near the end of his term in office berated himself for not doing more, in the midst of war, to resolve inter-agency fights waged by people whose only thought was to save their career;

Who history will rightfully place among America's greatest wartime presidents.

To President Bush, and to all Americans who joined to get this nation through one of its darkest days, you have my admiration and gratitude.

God bless America.
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