9/11: recalling the past, looking to the future

By Dalton Karwacki
Despite the great strides made in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to correct the failures that allowed them to occur, some issues have still not been addressed, according to Dean John J. Farmer of Rutgers School of Law-Newark.

John J. Farmer discusses the long-term effects of Sept. 11, 2001, focusing on how to prevent future attacks.

Farmer, who was New Jersey Attorney General at the time of the attacks, served from 2003 to 2004 as a senior counselor and team leader for the 9/11 Commission. He helped write its final report and is the author of The Ground Truth: The Story Behind America’s Defense on 9/11.

Farmer spoke on Sept. 12 as part of Rider University’s commemoration of the ninth anniversary of the attacks.

The university also held a memorial ceremony on Sept. 11 in front of Moore Library in honor of the eight members of the Rider community who lost their lives in the attacks (see box).

Farmer said that in order to move forward and successfully protect against future attacks, two main actions must be taken. First, changes must be made to the government, particularly in the ways of intercommunication.

“It may just be a projection of human nature that leads people to go into silos and not integrate information, but that’s really the problem, and if we’re not willing to address that, then these things are going to recur,” Farmer said.

The second step that must be taken, according to Farmer, is to educate people about the basics of how to behave in an emergency situation.

“There needs to be a recognition that, whatever happens, the person on the street is going to be a part of the response, because they’re not targeting, in many cases, infrastructure, they’re targeting people,” he said. “There ought to be a national effort to educate everybody in the rudiments of emergency response; every adult ought to know how to think in a crisis.”

Farmer also explained the need to fight what he called “9/11 fatigue.”

“There is always this burst of media coverage and you hear these same platitudes over and over again about how we have to be better and we have to pay closer attention, etc.,” Farmer said. “I think the best way to do that, the best antidote to that kind of fatigue and complacency, is to go back to that day and relive what happened.”

He spoke about how he, as Attorney General of New Jersey at the time, experienced the day and assisted in coordinating the emergency response. At a law enforcement conference in Atlantic City, he said, the pagers of nearly all the attendees went off when the first of the planes hit its target. He said that much of the rest of the day was spent trying to get a handle on the situation.

“Really, 9/11 for me, the whole day, could be encapsulated in the phrase, ‘What the hell is going on?”’ said Farmer. “It was total chaos from our end.”

A Sept. 11 memorial ceremony was held in front of Moore Library in honor of those who perished that day.

Eventually, Farmer made it to Liberty State Park, which was pre-designated as an emergency response command center. He said that while emergency plans did exist, events of the day occurred in a way that made communication nearly impossible, contributing to the chaos.

“We had anticipated some type of mass-casualty event in New York, so our goal was pretty clearly defined in advance,” said Farmer. “Having said that, the state police radio tower was actually on top of the trade center tower, so when the tower came down, we lost radio communication. Cell phones, obviously, were useless because they were all jammed. BlackBerrys worked, but very few people had them. By the time we got to Liberty State Park, I would say that the balance of my day was trying to figure out what was going on.”

After discussing his experiences on 9/11, Farmer discussed the investigation into the attacks. He said there was a growing concern over vigilante activity against Muslims.

“What we did do, though, was to go around to virtually every mosque in the northern part of the state,” he said. “I met with basically all of them and tried to assure them that we were not going to tolerate vigilante activity, but also to inform them that we really needed assistance in figuring out exactly who had done what and when and if people had helped these folks.”

Farmer said that some of these meetings became very tense and that the level of cooperation varied quite a bit.

“Something I learned from that was that to think of the Muslim community as some kind of monolith is just wrong,” he said. “It’s been a little bit dispiriting, particularly this anniversary season, to see the level of the public discourse, burning Qurans and that kind of thing.”

After leaving the post of Attorney General, Farmer was asked to join the 9/11 Commission. He said that while the necessary pieces existed to prevent such an attack, there were basic flaws in the way these pieces fit together. There was a massive military and intelligence community geared toward early warning, border control, no-fly lists and federal, state and local law enforcement standing between any prospective terrorist and a potential target. The problem was that in light of the end of the Cold War, these pieces no longer fit together the way they needed to.

“Once the Cold War was over, the big question that the Clinton administration faced was how do you reengineer the federal government to respond to a world where the Soviet Union isn’t the principle threat anymore?” Farmer said.

He said that even though attempts were being made to change the federal government to a more counterterrorism-oriented mindset, the institutional inertia made the change difficult and slow. Bureaucratic interactions, he said, created a loss of urgency and severely hindered interdepartmental communication, leading to a breakdown, making it impossible to get a complete picture of the situation.

Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics, summarized the theme for the evening.

“It’s now up to us, I believe, to come to grips with what happened, to interpret it, to comprehend it, and to channel it into future policy,” said Dworkin. “For as the years go by, we will not only remember where we were then, but we will be forced to confront where we have been since then.”

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