By JON BLAU
Lee Hamilton’s plane was sitting on the tarmac in Washington, D.C., when a flight attendant ordered passengers off.
Instead of taking his flight back to Indiana, the former U.S. representative was seated in front of a window inside a terminal, watching smoke pour out of the Pentagon. He was told a helicopter had crashed, and all flights were grounded.
The city “quit for the day,” he said, because everyone was anxious about what might happen next. Never before had he seen such fear on people’s faces.
The information about what transpired the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, changed over the next two or three hours, transforming into the tragedy Americans saw repeated many times over. Hamilton, who now heads Indiana University’s Center on Congress, played a vital role in cataloging what happened that day as the vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission. He tried, in a way, to help the country move forward.
Hamilton, however, doesn’t want the passing of time to mean the passing of memory.
“The threat is still genuine,” said Hamilton, the former Democratic congressman from Indiana’s 9th District who served 1965-99. “I don’t want to put people in a panic, but I don’t want them to let their guard down.”
In the dozen years since Sept. 11, Hamilton is proud to say that al-Qaida is “0-for-12,” failing to launch a large-scale attack on American soil since 2001. U.S. policy has been in line with the 2004 report’s first goal, to “identify and prioritize actual or potential terrorist sanctuaries.” Drone strikes have killed dozens of the group’s leaders, but terror cells have splintered into more and more countries across the Middle East.
Terrorism always looms in the background, highlighted by the shooting at Fort Hood and the Boston Marathon bombing, he noted. “We haven’t been perfect,” Hamilton said, admitting also that America’s initial feelings of insecurity may have given the government some unchecked powers.
While he is proud that many of the commission’s recommendations were followed, including support for the Department of Homeland Security and provisions to create better communication between intelligence branches, the former chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee is still pushing for drone missions to be under the control of the Department of Defense, not the Central Intelligence Agency; he wants the CIA gathering information, not launching attacks. Hamilton has also been critical of legislators for failing to oversee an intelligence community that has been scrutinized following Edward Snowden’s leaks about the National Security Agency.
Since the commission released its findings, the “War on Terrorism” and America’s view of it have evolved. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and conflicts in Egypt, Libya and now Syria, have tested Americans’ stomach for being “the world’s leader,” but Hamilton said he thinks that’s a role the U.S. should play.
“The Syrian conflict and the polls reflect strongly that the American people are decisively opposed to further interventions,” Hamilton said. “But I do not believe that feeling translates to isolation. Americans are proud of our role in the world.
“It is a recognition of the limited resources we have and a recognition of the extremely difficult goals of creating democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, which might have been a bridge too far at a price we might not be willing to pay.”
What can get lost in a post-9/11 America is the memories of the people who lost their lives 12 years ago. He remembers the faces of victims’ family members, who pushed for a government inquiry into the attack. He remembers 3 a.m. drives over the 14th Street bridge in Washington, D.C., crossing the Potomac River on his way between his congressional office and his home, wondering if the commission would ever be able to pull all of the details of a complex moment in history, put it all in perspective and make recommendations that would gain consensus.
Regardless, his mind always shifts back to that one day.
“We think of all the people who lost their lives and their families,” Hamilton said. “We have to commend our leaders and the choices they have made and the institutions they have strengthened. That isn’t to say we have done everything we should have, and there isn’t more that needs to be done.”