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9.10.04
Politics and Economy:
9/11: For the Record
More on This Story:
CIRCLE OF ACCOUNTABILITY
By Andrew Meier, Sherry Jones and Bill Moyers

It has taken three years for the details of the terrorist plot of 9/11 to emerge. The fateful turns that led to the attacks have finally entered the public discourse. Their lessons, however, have yet to be learned.

The first lesson is that the highest officials in government did not want us to know the truth.

They already had the story they wanted Americans to believe: Nearly 3,000 people had died, we were assured, because the terrorists turned our liberties against us, had brazenly exploited our open society. According to this official view, the atrocities were inevitable, the plot so diabolical and its execution so precise that only a superhero could have prevented it.

It sounded right. For the American people, the terror seemed to have fallen out of that near-perfect September sky, out of the clear blue.

We now know otherwise. The report of the 9/11 Commission lays the story bare in exhaustive, forensic detail, and on page 265 concludes that the terrorists “exploited deep institutional failings within our government.”

That is not the whole truth. What are institutions if not the lengthened influence of individuals? “The system failed” is the catchphrase now in vogue in Washington. Critics and fans alike of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush still rely on this hollow analysis. But “the system” is no mindless mechanism operating independently of the men and women individuals with names, power, and obligations ­ who are charged with making it work. Before “the system” can fail, they must fail.

The Commissioners avoided blaming any government officials, past or present, for the failure to prevent the attacks. They maintain that their job was not to assign individual blame, but provide the most complete and frank account of the decisive events surrounding the attack. To that end, they succeeded. But to stop there is to stop short. Read the final report of the Commission carefully — connect the dots — and a fuller pattern emerges: Key government officials failed the system, and they failed the American people.

Judges and social workers talk of the “circle of accountability.” The 9/11 Commission was indeed an historic undertaking. Yet in spreading the blame as broadly as it possibly could, the Commissioners, rather than enlarging that circle, have all but closed it. Americans deserve better than to allow accountability to be passed off as a mere abstraction; they should know where the buck stops. The nearly 3,000 men and women who died on 9/11 deserve better, too. It will not bring them back to hold accountable the particular officials in high office who could have acted and did not. But it will assure that they did not die in vain.

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