BY WALTER CRONKITE
Last week, New York City got a citywide dose of tough love when the 9/11 Commission came to town. The commission's questions on the first of the two-day hearings seemed too harsh and accusatory to some -- especially to those questioned. In response, former Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani eloquently defended his administration by citing the heroism of those firefighters and police who lost their lives trying to save the lives of others.
The former mayor told the commission: "We're all hurt. We're all damaged. We're all very, very angry. And we're all feeling the loss of heroes that we love." He admitted that "terrible mistakes" had been made that awful day. But he blamed the enormous pressure created by the unprecedented, "unimagined" nature and magnitude of the attacks. Then he urged the commission to show compassion and called upon it to concentrate on preventing another attack instead of finding blame. "Our enemy is not each other," he said, "but the terrorists who attacked us."
Of course that was true. It also was a truism -- and a debating trick, defending against a charge no one had made. Furthermore, it was a false contrast, as Bob Kerrey, the former Democratic senator from Nebraska, pointed out. It's not a choice between questioning those who made mistakes before and during 9/11 and finding ways to prevent another such catastrophe.
The fact is that you cannot very well do the latter without, to some extent, doing the former. Learning how to prevent or to minimize the impact of a future attack, you have to find out what went wrong the first time. That inevitably leads to decisions made or not made by specific people who have names. Unfortunate though it might be, people are going to attach blame to those names.
The former mayor focused on the courage and dedication of city personnel immediately after the attack. But the commission was also concerned about the state of things before the attack, and there the city did not fare well.
Before the event, New York had at best a fragmented emergency-response system, largely the result of a historic rivalry between the New York Police and Fire departments that often verged on enmity. Pressures of that "unimagined" disaster do not explain the pre-existing shortcomings in communications and procedures revealed on 9/11. New York had virtually no centrally coordinated disaster-response system. That was the first cause of those "terrible mistakes." The city, it would seem, was unprepared for any disaster that required a coordinated, citywide response, and that fact clearly cost many people their lives.
At several points the former mayor appeared to be in deep denial, as when he said: "There was not a problem of coordination on September 11 because it was bigger than everyone. Everyone sublimates his ego." Maybe so, but the sublimating of egos did not make up for the systems failures that caused 911 operators to instruct people in the towers to stay at their desks. It didn't tell people in the North Tower that the South Tower had collapsed so they would know they had to evacuate. Among those killed as a result were the entire top echelon of the Fire Department -- including the chief. They were clueless as they stayed in their makeshift "communications" center on the first floor, their fate sealed by the communications barrier they had tolerated.
There is a time after an awful, catastrophic event when we need, most of all, to have our pain eased, to be consoled. We have a deep emotional need to recognize and honor our heroes. Their selfless actions inspire us, give us courage and alleviate the sense of helplessness we naturally feel.
But the time has to come when the pain must be borne, when we have to look reality in the face and examine what went wrong. The trauma suffered by the people of this great city on 9/11 merits compassion, to be sure. But two and a half years after the event, it is more important that we concentrate on clear-headed, unsentimental analysis so that we can effectively use the lessons 9/11 teaches to protect us in the future.
Write to Walter Cronkite c/o King Features Syndicate, 888 Seventh Ave., New York, NY 10019, or e-mail him at mail(at)cronkitecolumn.com.
(c) 2004 Walter Cronkite
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