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On the 15th Anniversary of the 9/11 Attacks

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September 11, 2016

Today marks 15 years since the September 11, 2001 attacks that forever changed our nation. In some ways these events awakened us to threats of terrorism that we had previously failed to understand in their totality. In other ways, it permanently changed the way we calculate and respond to threats. It led to the largest reorganization of the federal government (and subsequently led to numerous state and local government reorganizations) since World War II, and it also forever changed the way we organize our lives and how we look at the world.

This change in our thinking was done at great cost, measured financially in setting up new systems for homeland security, lives lost through failed or inadequate response from agencies reeling from hasty reorganizations, weakening of personal privacy protection in the interests of national security, and, through incalculable changes due to the fear introduced into our psyche.

One hopes that these costs are outweighed by the benefits. Indeed, many gaps in security prior to 9/11 have been closed. State and local governments are more prepared to meet the challenges of disaster response than ever before (although according to our analysis, this is in danger of eroding due to a waning national investment).

The role of academia in understanding the determinants of successful disaster preparedness, response and recovery is contributing to a body of science that supports evidence-based decisions, rather than decisions that sound right in the absence of evidence. This process too has been weakened by the elimination of specific funding for academic research. Nonetheless, progress is being made and there is an increasing awareness of the importance of making policy and priority decisions based on research-based evidence. We also have slowly but surely cultivated a preparedness infrastructure, knowledge and expertise to work towards reaching our full potential.

Of course, we are also in an evolving threat environment on multiple fronts. Over the next decade, we are less vulnerable to spectacular 9/11 style attacks. But, as we have seen in Orlando and San Bernardino, as well as Paris, Brussels, and many other places, terrorist tactics have shifted to attacks on western soft targets. In contrast to Al Qaeda’s professionalized approach to terrorism, ISIS is becoming increasingly effective at inspiring lone wolves which are much more difficult to detect and prevent.  As we rely more and more on technology for our daily lives, we also become more vulnerable to acts of cyber-terrorism. Climate change is rendering our previous assumptions obsolete about flood-plains, drought cycles and even the way we talk about “100 year” weather events that seem to be constantly occurring. As our nation’s infrastructure ages, we are also facing a new class of disasters caused by widespread failures of the systems we have come to rely on.

As we look ahead, we must remember that the current system of homeland security and disaster preparedness in the United States is a mosaic of assembled agencies, presidential directives and legislation that has come in the aftermath of disasters when we needed solutions quickly. While these systems have been somewhat refined and strengthened after their creation, gaps still remain and we should not consider their founding charters or philosophies as infallible. To build on this, we need lasting solutions with institutions designed to understand and promote true disaster resilience to whatever threats may emerge.

Unfortunately, the preparedness funding trends over the last 12 years are moving steadily downward and there is still no standing fund for response to some types of unanticipated emergencies. This is a lesson we continue to experience as emergency funds need to be requested for the response to Pandemic Influenza, Ebola and Zika virus. Even with a disaster declaration, funding for infrastructure disasters (like the lead in the water in Flint) require special legislation because existing disaster funds under the Stafford Act are only fully available for “naturally occurring” events.

Additionally, although most of the capacity to respond to disasters lies in the private sector, there are myriad rules that restrict advisory groups between public and private sector partners, even for collaboration within industries, for fear of improper influence or collusion among competitors. There are also similar barriers to true civilian-military planning, such as the Posse Comitatus Act, designed to limit the use of the federal military personnel as an arm of domestic policy. While these concerns should be acknowledged, we need new strategies and guidance to allow greater collaboration in these critical areas.

We also rely too exclusively on federal grants and/or mandates tied to federal funding to prepare for disasters. While this is necessary, it is an incomplete approach and fails to use all of the resources we have to offer as a nation. To achieve resilience we must do more to develop true incentives to promote industry-led resilience that complements government’s obligation to respond. We must also find ways to avoid the paralyzing rhetoric of fear, and acknowledge disaster resilience in terms of the value that it creates, even in the absence of disaster.

We have come a long way since the horrific events of September 11, 2001. As we build upon the past and work towards the future, our efforts to build a more prepared and resilient nation have never been more important. While the threats against us persist and continue to evolve, we have more research and expertise on disaster impacts than ever before. We also have multi-billion dollar institutions designed to leverage this expertise. By continuing these efforts and leveraging all that we have to offer as a nation, we will not only ensure that we survive in the face of these threats, but that we will thrive for generations to come.