Senator Collins Commemorates 5th Anniversary of September 11th Terrorist Attacks

Sen. Susan M. Collins
September 11th Speech
Sept. 11, 2006

Five years ago, our nation experienced one of its darkest days and finest hours. With shocking suddenness, an act of unparalleled cruelty transformed a late-summer morning of uncommon brilliance into one of unfathomable horror. On that awful morning, September 11th was transformed from a mere point on the calendar into an eternal monument to the deepest human emotions of loss, of sacrifice, and of resolve.

We pause today to remember those whose lives were taken that terrible morning – 2,996 innocent men, women, and children, workers doing their jobs, travelers embarking on trips. Men and women like Robert and Jacqueline Norton of Lubec, Maine, who boarded Flight 11 to celebrate a son’s wedding in California. In the days just before the trip, the Nortons planted new raspberry bushes in their garden and Robert, at age 85, helped repair the concrete steps at their church.

At age 85, Robert Norton was the oldest to perish that day. At age 2, Christine Hanson of Groton, Massachusetts, was the youngest. She was traveling with her parents to that place of childhood dreams, Disneyland. The aircraft that was to take the Hanson family on their dream vacation instead was driven into the North Tower. There, on the 92nd floor, were John and Sylvia Resta of Queens, New York. They worked together and on September 11th they died together. Sylvia Resta was seven months pregnant.

The Pentagon that morning was filled with men and women who had dedicated their lives to serving their country. Among them was Commander Robert Allan Schlegel. After his 1981 graduation from Gray-New Gloucester High School in Maine, he went to college, married his high-school sweetheart, Dawn, and followed a tradition set by his father and two brothers by joining the United States Navy. His fifteen-year Naval career was one of achievement and courage. Among his many commendations were the Meritorious Service Medal, four Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medals, and the Purple Heart. Shortly before September 11th, he had been promoted to the rank of Commander. His new office, on the second floor of the Pentagon, was believed to be the point of impact of Flight 77.

Each of these names, and the names of so many more, represent lives of accomplishment, contribution, and promise. Each loss leaves a wound in the hearts of families and friends that can never be fully healed.

But September 11th was not just a day of personal tragedy. It was an attack on the United States, an attack on freedom, an attack on civilization. We must never forget what was lost, and what remains at stake.

We also pause today to remember the heroes whose courage saved countless lives then, and who continue to inspire us. Yamel Merino, of Yonkers, New York, was described by colleagues as “the perfect EMT.” She gave her life while helping the injured near the World Trade Center when the first tower collapsed.

After an outstanding career with the FBI, John O’Neill became head of security for the World Trade Center. He exited the building safely after the first of the two hijacked planes hit, but re-entered when he saw the extent of the damage and the danger to others. He saved lives, but could not save himself.

After his safe exit from the Pentagon, Staff Sergeant Christopher Braman rushed back into the burning building, returning again and again to find survivors and to carry them to safety. He stayed on the scene for the next three days, working past exhaustion, saving lives with the search and rescue skills the U.S. Army had taught him.

In the days and weeks immediately following the attacks, we were moved by the selfless courage of the men and women — passengers and crew — aboard Flight 93. By wresting control of that aircraft from the terrorists, they knowingly gave their lives so that others might live. Todd Beamer’s “Let’s Roll!” became our nation’s rallying cry.

Last month, additional recordings of emergency calls made that terrible morning were released. One contains a statement that describes with eloquent simplicity the spirit of September 11th. Amid the suffocating smoke, searing flames, and falling debris of the South Tower, the last words Fire Captain Patrick Brown spoke from the 35th floor to the outside world were these: “We’re still heading up.”

We may never know where the courage to keep “heading up” into such danger comes from. We must always honor it. We must never forget.

As we pledge to never forget what was lost and what was given on September 11th, we must in the same breath pledge to do all that we can to prevent future attacks. We can offer no guarantee, but it must be our goal.

The fundamental obligation of government is to protect its people. Since September 11th, we have done much to meet that obligation. Immediately after the attacks, we passed legislation to close the gap between law enforcement and intelligence that the terrorists exploited. The reauthorization signed into law earlier this year makes permanent many provisions from the original law that are important to protect Americans from terrorists. Equally important, it contains significant new safeguards that protect the civil liberties we cherish but that the terrorists despise.

We created the Department of Homeland Security to provide a unifying core to the vast effort of detecting and preventing terrorist attacks, assessing and protecting our vulnerabilities, and improving our response to disasters of all types. Through DHS, we have made great investments in training and equipping first responders throughout the nation. We have strengthened our borders with additional personnel, better coordination with state and local authorities, and cutting-edge technology so that they remain open to our friends but increasingly closed to our enemies.

We passed the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, which Senator Lieberman and I authored. This legislation, based on the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, brought about the most comprehensive reforms of our intelligence community in more than a half century so that the trail of “dots” terrorists leave behind as they plan, train, and organize will never again be left unconnected. This newly restructured intelligence community has uncovered terrorist plots, cells, and financing operations, and it played an important role in thwarting the scheme to blow up transatlantic airliners that was exposed in Britain last month.

And today we are on the brink of passing the GreenLane Maritime Security Act. America’s seaports are vital to our economy, but at the same time they offer a port of entry for those who would do us harm, or for devastating weapons. This bipartisan legislation will help build a coordinated approach to maritime and port security across all levels of government with our overseas trading partners. In addition to improving our nation’s security, it will expedite trade with foreign governments and businesses, and provide financial assistance to our ports as they strive to strengthen their terrorism prevention and response effort. I urge my colleagues to take this major step toward protecting these valuable and vulnerable facilities.

We have taken many such steps. None was easily taken. All were accompanied by controversy, conflict, and reasonable differences of opinion. Yet, working together, we found a way.

Each, however, remains a work in progress. DHS has yet to develop the cohesion, the common culture, that is needed for its complex mission. First responder grants to the states still lack the accountability and effective measures of progress needed to prevent the waste of taxpayer dollars. Ongoing shortages of detention space and personnel leave our borders at risk.

Other gaps remain. Tens of millions of Americans live and work in proximity to plants that produce, use, or store large quantities of hazardous chemicals. The American chemical industry is a major and beneficial component of our nation’s economy. There is no question that attacking these facilities fits squarely within the terrorist strategy of causing maximum harm to our people and to our prosperity.

Yet five years after 9/11, five years after this horrific strategy was fully revealed, America is left vulnerable by an incomplete and inadequate patchwork of laws and voluntary industry standards that far too many facilities fail to observe. The Homeland Security Committee approved our bipartisan Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Act more than three months ago by a unanimous vote. For the first time, our legislation would ensure that high-risk chemical facilities are covered by federal standards that would not only help to deter terrorist attacks, but also to mitigate the consequences of an attack. Our legislation would give the Department of Homeland Security the strongest possible remedy to ensure compliance: the authority to shut down any chemical facility that does not adequately address the risks of a terrorist attack. Unless this legislation moves forward, these highly attractive terrorist targets, targets that can be found in every state, and in communities large and small, will remain without the protection they require.

The heroes of 9/11 faced grave danger and made great sacrifices in order to save others. They performed magnificently despite being hampered by obsolete and incompatible communications equipment that placed them in needless peril and that resulted in needless loss of life. The Post-Katrina Emergency Reform Act, which Senator Lieberman and I introduced, contains strong provisions to establish a comprehensive national emergency-communications strategy, to coordinate state grants for interoperable communications, and to regularly assess the communications systems that are so essential for effective disaster response. It is time to act on this legislation – we must never again send our first responders into harm’s way with a deficiency that has been so thoroughly revealed.

These are not barriers we have run up against, but hurdles we have yet to clear. Together, energized by our shared commitment to protect the American people, we can surmount them.

The greatest challenge is to recognize that the challenges presented by terrorism constantly evolve. As the devastating attacks in Madrid, Bali, Istanbul, Beslan, London, and in Israel prove, the terrorists will strike wherever opportunity allows and wherever innocent people are the most vulnerable. The terrorists’ resourcefulness, cunning, and patience are exceeded only by their depravity.

Indeed, one of the most striking findings of the 9/11 Commission was that the September 11th attacks were made possible by a “failure of imagination.” Commercial airliners had long been a target of terrorists; the conventional wisdom was that they would be targeted in two ways: to hijack for the purpose of taking hostages, or to blow up in mid-air. To envision airliners being hijacked to use as missiles would have taken some imagination, but it was not unimaginable.

How different things might be today – five years after September 11th, 2001 — if our imagination had been fully engaged five years before. 1996 was the year that Ramzi Yousef, while awaiting trial for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, was convicted of a conspiracy to plant bombs aboard a number of US airliners operating in East Asia, and of placing the bomb that exploded aboard a Philippine airliner late the previous year. 1996 was the year of the truck bomb attack on Khobar Towers, an attack that specifically targeted U.S. personnel. And it was the year Osama bin Laden relocated from Sudan to Afghanistan, established a new base of operations under the protection of the Taliban, and declared war on the United States. The terrorist strategy was evolving to direct and massive attacks on high-profile American targets, but we failed to see it. We failed to imagine that these seemingly isolated events were tied together.

In the aftermath of 9/11, we learned that, although the terrorists targeted high-profile targets in major cities, they did much of their planning, training, and transiting in smaller communities – communities such as Stone Mountain, Georgia, Norman, Oklahoma, and Portland, Maine. It may be that they believed these locations shielded their activities from the scrutiny they would have been subjected to in their larger, more “terrorism-savvy” target locations.

Today, there is no question that this tactic has evolved. As the recent arrests in Canada and Miami, the attacks on the London subway of a year ago, and the foiled airliner plot in Britain have made clear, terrorism masterminds no longer rely upon operatives imported from abroad to infiltrate target nations and to carry our attack. The emerging threat is from “home-grown” terrorists. Again, the tactic of avoiding scrutiny, this time at our borders, is apparent.

Whether the target we seek to protect is a cargo port, a chemical plant, a public water supply, the electricity grid, or the information-technology networks critical to our economy, it does not take a stretch of the imagination to see that an attack could come from within just as easily, perhaps even more easily, than from abroad. In fact, Timothy McVeigh and the D.C. snipers tell us that this is not so much a matter of imagination as it is of recognizing reality. From John Walker Lindh, we already know that the most extreme ideology can take root even among those who enjoy the most privileged circumstances our society can offer. As the details of the British airliner plot emerge, it becomes evident that “home-grown” terrorists, working in conjunction with masterminds overseas, can be every bit as sophisticated as the imported terrorists who attacked us on 9/11.

What is particularly alarming about this tactic is that it does not just infiltrate our society with hate-filled operatives, but attempts to infect our society with terrorism’s murderous ideology. I am particularly concerned by the extent to which this infection is spread within our state and federal prisons.

Richard Reid – the infamous “shoe-bomber” – and Jose Padilla both were indoctrinated into Islamic extremism while in prison. Less well-known, but equally lethal, is Kevin James, a self-styled Imam who, while a California State Prison inmate, founded an organization based upon his radical interpretation of Islam. James recruited among his fellow inmates, allegedly instructing them that it was their duty to kill his perceived “enemies of Islam” – in particular U.S. military personnel and supporters of Israel. Upon their release, his followers reportedly conducted surveillance on military installations, the Israeli Consulate, and synagogues. It is alleged that they sought firearms with silencers and also explosives, and that they financed their operations through a string of armed robberies in the Los Angeles area. These operatives have been arrested and they face trial next month. The “new face” of terrorism – born and raised in America, in Great Britain — has been exposed.

This “new face” is being created in a setting that is supposed to bring rehabilitation and reform. It is being created with taxpayer dollars. This is the reality that we must confront. We must not allow our imagination to fail us again.

On this day of remembrance, of sorrow, and of gratitude, our thoughts must turn to those who have given so much to defend our nation against terrorism – the men and women of our armed forces. They have freed Afghanistan from a regime that harbored al Qaeda, that brutalized its own people, and that cruelly oppressed Afghan women. They battle bravely in Iraq. They have given 50 million people who once had no hope the chance to seize and embrace freedom.

Like our efforts to secure our homeland, these military operations have been conducted amid controversy, conflict, and with vigorous differences of opinion throughout our nation. Let no differences, however, prevent us from honoring the courage and sacrifice of those who wear our nation’s uniform.

Five years ago, in what seemed like a moment, September 11th was transformed from a day like any other day into one that, for as long as our nation stands, will stand alone. The loss we relive this day reminds us of the value of all that we must protect. The heroism reminds us of the unconquerable spirit of the American people. Our accomplishments remind us that we can meet any challenge with decisive action. As long as we keep the meaning of this day of remembrance in our hearts, we will meet the challenges that lie ahead.