Every American who is at least 20 years old remembers where he or she was on that sunny September morning 10 years ago.
Sept. 11, 2001, was one of the most transformative events in the history of America. And its consequences rippled across the globe.
This historic attack on the United States set in motion unprecedented governmental and societal actions not seen since the laws and regulations enacted during the Great Depression and World War II. They changed America forever.
I was attending a breakfast on the Senate side of the Capitol that morning. I recall every detail of that day.
To borrow words from Winston Churchill, 9/11 was a “jarring gong” that knocked America off balance and off course. What and who were we up against? Who committed this cowardly brutal act and why?
And is America safer today than it was on Sept. 11, 2001? In many ways, yes — but in many ways, no.
Our 16 independent intelligence agencies are more integrated than before 9/11. They now coordinate, collect and share analyses under one national director of intelligence. Their capacities have been refocused with more resources and capability than ever before. Our borders, national infrastructure and transportation systems are also more secure … just ask any airline passenger.
Twenty-two federal government agencies and departments were rolled into a new single Department of Homeland Security. It gives our government more control, better management and coordination and a more strategic use of budgets, policies and people.
However, we still have not completed a number of important 9/11 Commission recommendations like setting aside a national emergency first responder communications channel.
During the past 10 years, America dramatically overreached. It committed to foreign and domestic obligations well beyond our capacity to finance and successfully implement them. We paid little attention to the historic reality of great power limitations. We made commitments and decisions with little regard to long-term consequences, and without recognizing new global forces were shaping a new world order. Hence, we ran up record debt and did great damage to our nation.
Our government’s debt has increased by nearly $9 trillion since 9/11. Two trillion dollars of our more than $14 trillion debt has accrued because of two wars in the past decade, which has put historic strain on our citizens and resources. The over-reliance on our military has placed terribly heavy burdens on the Department of Defense, its people and its capabilities. We have ordered our service men and women to continuous cycles of back-to-back combat tours in these two wars. This has required unprecedented sacrifice from only 1 percent of our society.
We chose not to address our immigration policy, which has been frozen over the past 10 years. This has forced states to come up with their own patchwork of immigration laws. Freezing and cutting back visas has cost America billions of dollars in travel, tourism, hospitality and related businesses and the hundreds of thousands of jobs that go with these industries. Whether all of this has added to America’s security is questionable.
We have failed to recognize America’s security is not just predicated on strong military and intelligence capability. A nation’s security is anchored by its economic strength. We have taken our eye off a fundamental responsibility of society and government — keeping a nation economically competitive and fiscally responsible by investing in education, skill sets, research, technology, infrastructure, balanced budgets and other foundational pillars of a nation’s future. America is now facing the realities of these neglected priorities and deferred decisions.
A free people always must stay steady in the face of great upheaval and never trade their personal liberties for the promise of security. In times of great threat, there is always the pressure to give the government extraordinary new powers. This was part of the debate in Congress during the past 10 years, especially over the enactment of laws like the Patriot Act.
America today lives with far more domestic surveillance of its citizens than ever before by a bigger and more powerful government that collects large quantities of information about its people. When we give up personal freedoms to a government for promised security (as temporary as it may seem), those personal liberties rarely return. For more than 250 years, Americans have never traded personal freedom for promised security. This vigilance must always be honored.
The past 10 years have been very difficult for America. We have put our nation in a deep hole. Now we must do what this exceptional country with its exceptional people always has done — come together with a unity of purpose to fix our problems. America is a country that self-corrects. We have the people, capacity and system to reorient and rebuild our country. This will be America’s task for the next 10 years.
Senator Chuck Hagel is Chairman of the Atlantic Council.This column originally appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star.