On September 11, 2001, the landscape of American liberty changed forever when 19 al-Qaeda terrorists conspired to hijack and carry out synchronous airplane attacks across the United States. The terrorist attacks resulted in the deaths of nearly 3000 citizens and set in motion a series of events that would eventually lead to greater homeland security vulnerabilities.
The 9/11 attacks exposed implicit vulnerabilities in our existing homeland security infrastructure. Many of the liabilities were facilitated by distorted perceptions of safety, complacency and enforcement policy limitations. Based on this revelation, the United States government sought to develop more effective ways to combat terrorism on American soil by enacting a series of policies aimed at protecting its homeland security interests– the policies were outlined the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001, formally known as the U.S. Patriot Act. In summary, the Patriot Act was designed to achieve three specific objectives: 1) streamline coordination among intelligence agencies and lift restrictions on communications surveillance; 2) to enhance penalties for entities that enable terrorism; and 3) to provide law enforcement agencies with augmented tools and directives to aid in combating financial counterfeiting and money laundering schemes that fund terrorism.
At the time, the introduction of the Patriot Act was the first time in three decades that the United States government sought to augment its counter-terrorism measures. When the Patriot Act was finally enacted, civil liberties groups challenged the constitutionality of many of its provisions, which resulted in the courts striking down provisions of the legislation perceived as “intrusive surveillance” such as the FBI demanding information from Internet service providers without judicial oversight or public review. Despite political acceptance of the remainder of the policy, no one could have even imagined that nearly two decades later, many of the same controversies that the fueled scrutiny surrounding the Patriot Act would re-emerge and haunt American homeland security today. Theoretically, it was perceived that certain intrusions offered under the Patriot Act overstepped government limitations and violated the rights of individuals, despite the policy’s legal presumption of only addressing terrorists. Nevertheless, in the overturning of the provisions, it was apparent that the courts did not take into account that terrorists do not play by our rules. Nearly 16 years after the passage of the Patriot Act, our government still finds itself two steps behind the terrorist groups. In fact, the advent of social media – Facebook, Google and Twitter has made the ability to combat terrorism extremely difficult for American law enforcement, especially considering that all of the platforms provide material support for terrorism in violation of the Patriot Act by allowing groups to recruit, radicalize and fund their terrorist networks without restriction.
While it is imperative that we reflect and honor the sacrifices of the citizens who perished on 9/11, we must also take a hard look at our current state of homeland security and impending risks to reconcile existing vulnerabilities in our system to avoid the potential of a future attack. For more than a decade, the United States has focused on fighting “brick and mortar” wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, spending more than $1.5 trillion on maintaining a presence in the region. Consequently, the terrorists have modified their strategies and are now weaponizing social media to facilitate their clandestine efforts against us here at home. Although this fact has been made widely known to many of our political leaders, we still have failed in our ability to mitigate the outcomes of impending terrorist threats due to political tribalism and distorted perceptions of civil liberties. It should also be noted that in years after 9/11, in practice, we’ve convinced the American public that we are safer today than ever before; however, based on the tragic outcomes of other domestic attacks over the years and our inability to safeguard critical assets, that premise is far from the truth. Until recently, many citizens believed that it was virtually impossible for a plane to be commandeered for nefarious purposes after 9/11 because of the numerous security measures implemented at all U.S. airports. However, after a suicidal airline employee stole a commercial airplane from Sea Tac International Airport in Seattle, Washington and crashed it on a remote island in August of 2018, our consciousness about terrorism and associated homeland security risks have been significantly heightened.
In conclusion, as we memorialize the 17th anniversary of September 11th, we must continue to reflect on the vulnerable state of our homeland and cyber security and pressure our political leaders to do more to protect our homeland security interests, so that the tragic losses of the 9/11 victims will never be in vain. Because of the lessons learned after the 9/11 attack, we must now be proactive in our ability to counter terrorist aggression by: not being complacent, understanding relative laws, allocating appropriate resources to combating terrorism, regulating social media and working collectively with law enforcement to defend our great nation from foreign and domestic threats.
Demetrick Pennie, Ed.D., is a 19-year veteran Dallas police sergeant. He is the president of the Dallas Fallen Officer Foundation and the executive director of the Texas Fallen Officer Foundation. He is nationally recognized as a law enforcement advocate. He is a Doctor of Education and has facilitated college courses on the following topics: Terrorism, Ethics, Criminal Law and Justice, and Cultural Diversity.