9/11/01 -1/6/21 and Beyond

By Jim Mullen
Emergency Management, Once Removed

On September 10, 2001, I naively thought I had enough problems on my plate. The new Bush Administration was attempting to redirect virtually every unallocated federally appropriated dollar to address “new” priorities (emergency managers may recall the assault on funding for “traditional” natural hazards programs). My Seattle Office of Emergency Management was wrapping up the previous February’s Nisqually Earthquake recovery process. I was immersed in internal budget battles with Seattle’s Police Department hierarchy.

Everything changed shortly after 6 AM on September 11, 2001. In rapid succession, terrorists had hijacked four commercial airplanes: two destroyed the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, one was flown into the Pentagon in Washington, DC; heroic, selfless passengers on a fourth plane prevented another devastating attack.

9/11 drastically altered my career trajectory. I began questioning the Administration’s cavalier attitude toward state and local government prerogatives, restrictive allocations of “homeland security” grants, and proposed natural hazards funding reductions, increasing my professional visibility. Though not without controversy and the occasional implied threat that I might be hurting my career or, worse, my jurisdiction by speaking out, that visibility also led to increasingly influential roles in emergency management, and ultimately this modest platform.

Distinct memories of that excruciating day in the Seattle EOC linger: the Seattle Fire Chief muttering that he was watching his friends, senior members of NYFD, die – because they had likely established their command post too close to the scene; a firefighter’s matter – of – fact observation that the heat generated by the jet fuel and building accelerants would cause the collapse of both towers; the inexplicable pronouncement the evening of September 11 by the Environmental Protection Agency that air quality was “safe” sparking incredulity throughout our EOC. Seattle’s EOC was consumed with public messaging, assessing reports regarding the security of our jurisdiction, much as emergency management teams across the country did.

Reports of biological weapons attacks targeting government offices and national media within a week of 9/11 prompted additional protective measures and emergency procedures. However, this was no ordinary crisis, nor was its impact limited to the details of the attack itself.

The 9/11 attack illustrated America’s vulnerability to foreign terrorists. Much later, in 2010, DHS released a report on the potential threat posed by domestic terrorism from right-wing extremists: the report was quickly withdrawn, not particularly courageously, in the face of withering criticism. But, unfortunately, ignoring that threat did not make it go away, as evidenced by the rebellion by alt-right insurrectionists on 1/6/21. So, in 2021 we must pose the question: What have we learned in the intervening years between 9/11 and 1/6, not just about our government, but ourselves as we seek to protect and preserve our republic?