9/11/01-1/6/21 and Beyond – Eroding Confidence in Government

By Jim Mullen
Emergency Management, Once Removed

Although the 9/11 terrorists owed their success in some measure to poor coordination between federal government agencies, the feds “generously” sought to share responsibility for their lack of preparedness; protecting the “homeland” suddenly became a shared responsibility that local and state governments were “unprepared” to fulfill (duh!). In 2003, twenty-two federal agencies, including FEMA, were merged into the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Congress and the Administration enticed participation in “protecting the homeland” – dangling vast grant sums in front of governors, mayors, police, and fire departments, but with “conditions,” among them:

  • Limited flexibility in expending funds: only “federally approved expenditures” (no new staff, just reassignment of current personnel from other, presumably less essential duties!).
  • Participation in federally-sponsored terrorism exercises. (Note: These exercises were often no more than glorified photo opportunities, and candid after-action critiques often were delayed or suppressed altogether).

Federal officials displayed stunning ignorance of the variety among the nation’s local and state constitutions. As a result, the promised “collaborative relationship” with the nation’s governors and local elected officials proved elusive. Often, DHS “proposals” and requirements were presented with little or no local or state personnel input. “Collaboration” consisted of simply informing state and local “partners” what decisions had already been made!

Establishing the appropriate balance between anti-terrorism and natural hazards funding took far too long. With terrorism the primary, perhaps only priority of the DHS, it was a matter of time until DHS’s malpractice in neglecting FEMA would prove costly. Despite not-so-subtle suggestions that criticism of these policies was potentially “damaging” to one’s standing professionally, I, among others, warned of drastic consequences for minimizing natural hazards. The inept response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was the result.

Failure to prevent 9/11 and that fumbled natural disaster response were terrible enough. Revelations that the US invasion of Iraq was based on Administration – generated falsehoods further eroded confidence across the political spectrum, setting the stage for further political and social upheaval. Finally, a financial crisis in 2008-09 plunged the nation into “The Great Recession” – giving rise to a “less government” movement calling itself the “Tea Party,” ushering in a decade of political stagnation in the Congress, even on issues where there was a substantial national consensus.

Confidence waned in the government’s ability to cope with the most basic of critical issues. Political “absolutism” reigned, left, right and center. “Compromise” was labeled “betrayal.” The seeds of sedition were planted.

Ideological divisions, aggravated in tone by a foreign adversary (Russia!), defined 2016’s Presidential election. Enlightened leadership might have sought national unity: instead,  common cause was made with groups advocating divisive views our forebears fought World War II to defeat. Noxious “white supremacist” concepts, which for years were confined to the fringes of society, now were mainstreamed on some national media and within a significant, governing political party. “We wuz robbed” became the mantra for those who feared defeat at the ballot box in 2020’s Presidential election, even before the final results were in, and even after countless court challenges revealed no “robbery” whatsoever.