“Never again” has been the American mantra these past 15 years since the Sept. 11 terror attacks of 2001.
Those two words are uttered in memory of the 2,977 lives taken when 19 fanatics flew jetliners into the World Trade Center towers and Pentagon, and when United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania.
Those two words launched two wars — one in Afghanistan, where troops are expected to stay through 2017, and the other in Iraq.
Those two words have meant 2,384 American soldiers killed in Afghanistan and 4,424 killed in Iraq.
Those two words continue to echo to this day. The White House issued a release Aug. 30 renewing a state of national emergency for the 15th year “with respect to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the continuing and immediate threat of further attacks on the United States.”
President Barack Obama signed the announcement, as he has the past eight years. Originally, Proclamation 7463 was issued by President George W. Bush three days after the 9/11 attacks.
WHAT HAS CHANGED AT HOME?
The War on Terror hasn’t played out solely on some remote, international stage.
It’s mobilized police, firefighters, and paramedics here at home both through training and spending.
Tom Kelley, director of the Lorain County Emergency Management Agency, said there is a lot more inter-agency sharing of information.
That wasn’t the case in 2001. “That day it happened, we had nothing from anyone… We were getting nothing,” he said, remembering the frustration that came with no word from the federal or state levels to shine light on how to handle Sept. 12 as it dawned.
Should students be sent to school? Should police be on high alert? There was no answer from the top, he said.
That’s changed a great deal. Now there’s a system for funneling information down to local officials so they’re not in the dark, Kelley said.
That’s led to much better planning for disaster scenarios.
“Probably the biggest thing that’s happened in the fire service is the overall planning and forward-thinking for the next big incident,” said Amherst fire chief Greg Knoll. “We’re all much more aware of suspicious packages and possible chemical or biological weapons, things like that.”
Firefighters have drilled on how to distribute antibiotic pills and inoculations in the event of a smallpox or anthrax attack. They’re far more wary of going on “routine” calls such as toxic spills, saying they might not be accidents.
Amherst’s disaster management plan — its color-coded Bible for dealing with everything from hurricanes to bombs — has blossomed from 25 pages pre-9/11 to a thick book of several hundred pages today.
“Everything’s become much more complex, much more in-depth,” Knoll said.
Like many other fire departments in our area, the chief noted how Amherst has capitalized on Federal Emergency Management Agency grants. That money, filtering down from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, covered the bulk of $250,000 worth of new self-contained breathing gear for Amherst firefighters late last year.
The government’s 1033 Program has also helped put surplus equipment in the hands of police.
Oberlin police Lt. Michael McCloskey said his department used it to get gas masks and even a Humvee for use during storms and floods (though it’s no longer in use).
The most profound change for law enforcement, McCloskey said, has been in overall awareness of large-scale dangers.
Early in his career, terrorists weren’t considered a realistic threat, at least not in America’s heartland, he said.
“We are much more aware now of the potential terrorist threat and I think we’ve even seen that evolve since Sept. 11,” McCloskey said. “Previously the terrorist threat was from someone from a foreign country, one of the terrorist hot bed countries, where now there’s worry about homegrown terrorism.”
Some Americans have become radicalized “right under our noses,” he said, and present a threat from within.
Experts have argued over how religion, poverty, mental illness, and frustration over social injustice contribute to such radicalization, turning friends into foes.
For police, as a practical matter, it means placing an increased importance on investigating anything that seems out of the ordinary, regardless of whether it’s criminal, McCloskey said.
That’s a way of thinking enshrined in Homeland Security’s long-running “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign, which through posters and banners boasts, “Together we can help keep our community safe.” Whether that’s true is debatable; critics say the campaign hasn’t led to terrorist arrests, wastes a lot of manpower tracking down frivolous leads, and breeds a “Chicken Little” mentality.
But McCloskey, who functions as an intelligence liaison officer, said such observations by police are helpful.
When something strange or out-of-place is seen in Oberlin, it’s passed on to Homeland Security analysts who try to “connect the dots” all over the state, he said.
And with the Federal Aviation Administration’s traffic control center in the city, there’s an added incentive to report suspicious vehicles and other activity, McCloskey said.
The closeness of the FAA facility also weighs on the mind of Dave Knapp, director of the South Lorain County Ambulance District, headquartered in Wellington.
“It could have been here rather than in New York,” he said, remembering how Flight 93 was tracked by the FAA over our skies on 9/11. “You always want to stay on your A game, but you don’t know where you’re going to be called. Are we going to be called to a situation like that?”
While he can’t recall any credible terror threats close to home, Knapp said the gnawing possibility is always in the back of his mind — and it’s led his medics to constantly train for mass casualty situations.
Like Knoll, he said his workers are far more wary today when responding to emergency calls that could present hidden dangers.
An ambulance call-out may feel by-the-numbers, but there’s always the terrifying possibility an emergency could have been planned by forces unknown, Knoll said.
These days, EMTs have to rely on Lorain County sheriff’s deputies, firefighters, and police to ensure the scene is clear before entering.
“You just don’t know,” he said. “Our drive is to serve. Our drive is to go help people. But our safety has to come first.”
WHAT HAS CHANGED ABROAD?
We don’t talk much anymore about al-Qaida since the death of its founder, Osama bin Laden, in March 2011 during a special forces raid on his Pakistan compound.
The Sunni Islamist group sparked the United States’ so-called War on Terror and remains involved in the war in Afghanistan.
It’s also had its claws in insurgent movements in northwest Africa since 2002 and its offshoots played a major combat role in the Iraq War.
By the end of 2004, the U.S. government claimed to have wiped out the vast majority of al-Qaida’s leadership, though in the last couple of years the group has reestablished itself along the Pakistan-India border. Co-founder Ayman al-Zawahiri declared the region a staging ground for spreading jihadist aims in southeast Asia.
The terror group was behind a 2009 plot to use bombs disguised as soft drinks on seven airplanes headed from England to the U.S. and Canada. In January 2010, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates claimed al-Qaida aimed to provoke a nuclear war between India and Pakistan.
Al-Qaida has been linked to deadly strife in Syria and Libya, including the 2012 attack on the U.S. embassy at Benghazi, which killed four Americans. Its members also started massive forest fires in Russia in 2012.
Recent years have seen the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which is unaffiliated with al-Qaida.
In 2014, the CIA said ISIS had as many as 35,000 fighters. But unlike al-Qaida, it was successfully recruiting members from the West — as many as 2,000 from the U.S., Great Britain, and France — and possessed modern military weapons.
Where al-Qaida worked more like a shadowy spiderweb of loosely affiliated cells, ISIS organizes itself in a well-defined power structure like an army.
Terror attacks by Islamic extremists aren’t slowing.
We counted 40 so far in 2016, starting with a New Year’s Day suicide bombing at a French restaurant in Kabul. The most recent, as of this writing, came Aug. 8 when 77 died in a government hospital bombing in Pakistan.
The list includes the January attack on a Paris police station; the Belgian airport and metro attacks that killed 35 in March; and the slaughter of 49 people at an Orlando nightclub in June by Omar Mateen, who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE COST?
The human cost is devastating. Also alarming is the financial cost.
Each terrorist attack rocks stock markets by disrupting overseas operations and supply lines, but also by injecting uncertainty into the trading process.
The Dow Jones closed at 9,605 on Sept. 10, 2001. The New York Stock Exchange didn’t reopen for seven days, and during its first week back in action fell by more than 14 percent.
Today the stock market has recovered and the Dow has been hovering just above 18,000.
But each attack takes a toll. After the 2004 Madrid train bombings, the 2005 London Underground bombings, the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, and 2015 Paris attacks, the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index dropped up to 1.5 percent.
That doesn’t sound like much, but the cost is measured in billions of dollars and trickles down in the form of higher costs for you, the consumer.
Edward McKelvey, visiting professor of economics at Oberlin College, said unemployment has returned to pre-9/11 levels at 4.9 percent.
Yet purchasing power has not. Using Consumer Price Indices published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, we calculated that today the average American must earn about 37 cents more on every dollar just to tread water — a figure McKelvey backed up.
It’s impossible to tell how the economy would have evolved had 9/11 never happened.
But it’s clear the U.S. was already in the midst of a recession at the time, though it hadn’t yet been realized, according to McKelvey.
“You have to recognize too that as a result of 9/11, we fought a couple of wars,” he said. “That came at a very substantial cost to the government that has ultimately affected the budget.”
It’s likely our national debt would be significantly smaller without waging wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said. Money spent on defense and homeland security may well have been spent on social programs that have instead felt the squeeze.
On the other hand: “One of the peculiar things about disasters is they’re actually stimulative. Even if we’d never fought the wars, the act of rebuilding downtown Manhattan… that’s all economic activity,” said McKelvey.
Estimates have put counter-terrorism spending at $1 trillion since 9/11, though an exact number is anyone’s guess since some of the budget remains classified.
Some of that money has filtered down to local law enforcement.
For example, the Lorain County Sheriff’s Office and Lorain police each received hand-me-down armored vehicles in 2014 from the U.S. Army. They had been used overseas and, each valued at $700,000, were given away to the local agencies for use in SWAT and other dangerous operations.
Kelley said federal cash has also supplied the county with a fully-equipped bomb squad, a search and rescue team, and a $500,000 mobile command post.
In the first year after the terror attacks, Lorain County got $1.1 million in security funding, followed the next year by $700,000. It’s dwindled each year since.
Kelley said he believes the county will get $27,000 in federal money this year to reprogram all fire department radios to make sure firefighters can communicate effectively with each other.
Homeland Security claims such spending has made America “stronger and more resilient” but says “threats from terrorism persist and continue to evolve.”
Statements from the agency say “today’s threats do not come from any one individual or group. They may originate in distant lands or local neighborhoods. They may be as simple as a home-made bomb or as sophisticated as a biological threat or coordinated cyber attack.”
Since fiscal year 2003, Homeland Security has awarded in excess of $31 billion equipping local government to respond to and recover from acts of terrorism.
Yet terrorism isn’t first or second or even third on the threat list for the U.S. Department of Defense.
Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has publicly listed Russia and China at the top of his list of challenges, saying North Korea and Iran are next and terrorism fifth.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.
FEMA A New York firefighter surveys the rubble at the World Trade Center in the aftermath of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. This year marks the 15th anniversary of the terror plot that reshaped life in America.