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EDITORIAL

A day with lessons for protecting American lives

On the anniversary of 9/11, in the midst of a pandemic, it’s time to assess what we can learn from these twin horrors.

A photograph of fallen firefighter Leon Smith Jr. is held up during a ceremony marking the 18th anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, at the National September 11 Memorial, in New York, Sept. 11, 2019.
A photograph of fallen firefighter Leon Smith Jr. is held up during a ceremony marking the 18th anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, at the National September 11 Memorial, in New York, Sept. 11, 2019.Mark Lennihan/Associated Press

This was the day a nation promised never to forget. And so even in the midst of a pandemic, the memorials to those nearly 3,000 lives lost 19 years ago will go on — changed, adapted for these perilous times, but still a time to remember.

In New York City, at what for years after Sept. 11 was still called Ground Zero, families will no longer be the ones to read aloud the names of the loved ones lost on that day. The ceremony will be socially distanced; a recorded reading of the names will assure its brevity.

It will be a day of wreath-laying and solemn remembrance as it always is. But if the deaths of some 3,000 human beings on American soil can continue to tug at our consciences, how then to acknowledge, mark, remember the more recent deaths on these shores that today approach 200,000?

Where is their memorial? And, as this editorial page asked Thursday, where is the special commission that will eventually assign blame for all of the failures of leadership and political will that brought us to this day?

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The roots of these very different tragedies share more than our political leaders would ever want to acknowledge. In both cases, opportunities to protect Americans were wasted.

As the 9/11 Commission Report, issued in 2004, put it, “The 9/11 attacks were a shock, but they should not have come as a surprise.”

Going back to the 1993 truck bombing at the World Trade Center, this nation remained in denial of its vulnerabilities. “During the spring and summer of 2001, US intelligence agencies received a stream of warnings” the report said, or as Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet put it, “The system was blinking red.”

The term “stovepiping” became part of the American phrase book — a way to describe how each of the nation’s intelligence-gathering agencies went its own way, rarely sharing information.

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Among the reforms to come out of that report was the creation of an all-seeing Office of the Director of National Intelligence, to whom 16 intelligence agencies now report. Of course, the post is now held by former Republican congressman John Ratcliffe, a man so lacking in intelligence experience he felt compelled to inflate his resume in his quest for the job.

The global pandemic that is now the nation’s newest and most formidable enemy didn’t bring down buildings, but it has cost lives, produced untold suffering, and devastated the US economy in ways terrorists could not have dreamed possible.

As it did before 9/11, the government took its eye off the ball. The Trump administration reduced funding for global public health security, dissolved a pandemic task force in 2018, and scaled back the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s overseas public health work.

Still, intelligence officials — along with public health officials — did manage to send up early warning signs, but they had little impact. There is some evidence that US intelligence gathering out of Wuhan, China, found the first signs of what would become the pandemic as early as last November.

Of course, the parallels break down when the warnings reached the Oval Office. There is simply no president who has ever been as cavalier about his responsibilities, and indifferent to the lives of the American people, as Donald Trump. The president was briefed about the virus, and even told journalist Bob Woodward in February that it was “deadly stuff,” but chose to actively mislead the American people instead of organizing a response.

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Yes, the devastation caused by COVID-19 is certainly a “shock,” but it too “should not have come as a surprise.”

Not when the president of the United States repeatedly lies to the American people, insisting that a virus will “just go away” — and life will return to normal — maybe by Easter. Remember that? Or maybe by September and kids will be back in school. Or maybe by Election Day, when surely there will be a vaccine, no?

When the president waits until there is a full-blown crisis in much needed medical supplies to invoke the Defense Production Act, he has failed to protect the public.

When he bends trusted public health institutions to his will to promote phony “cures” or ineffective treatments, he is endangering the people of this country. And when he fails to promote common-sense protections like wearing masks, he fails in the most basic role of a leader.

When one day this nation is on the other side of this pandemic, there needs to be a way to memorialize those who lost their lives in a tragedy made worse by failures of leadership.

But there is one more lesson from the 9/11 Commission Report that should not be lost on a nation now sorely divided among the mask-wearers versus non-mask-wearers, believers versus deniers.

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“We call on the American people,” the commission wrote in 2004, “to remember how we all felt on 9/11, to remember not only the unspeakable horror but how we came together as a nation — one nation.”

In remembering those lost on that day, and in remembering those lost in these past painful months, it would be a fitting tribute that we at least reach toward that seemingly elusive goal.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.