The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks jolted the United States into new ways of thinking about terrorism, particularly when compared to the philosophies prevailing at the time of the Oklahoma City bombing.
The responses after the attacks are an exercise in contrasts.
Responses in September 2001 and in 1995 highlight the impression of the threat at the time and how agencies thought the threats should be addressed, said David Cid, executive director of the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism in Oklahoma City.
It has been a learning experience.
By late April 1995, the 1993 World Trade Center attack had occurred, as had the Murrah Building bombing — two attacks on American soil within two years — one international act and one domestic.
Despite the fact the attacks were not foiled, the conventional wisdom was the country's counterterrorism efforts were working, Cid said.
“There was a rapid resolution of both cases, the investigations went quickly and the people were identified and the cases were resolved to that extent,” Cid said.
When it was revealed in the case of the Murrah Building bombing that the perpetrator, Timothy McVeigh, was an American citizen, fear and the freshness of the attacks caused law enforcement and the public alike to look domestically for the next threat.
Edmond Police Chief Bob Ricks was the FBI's agent in charge during the Oklahoma City bombing.
“After the Murrah bombing occurred, we dedicated a lot of resources to domestic threats,” Ricks said. “The greatest threat was always international terrorism ... it caused our resources to not be as focused.”
Until the 2001 attacks, the Oklahoma City bombing remained the deadliest terror attack on U.S. soil, and changes here were noticeable immediately. No longer could vehicles drive up and park close to government buildings. When the new federal building was opened in 2004, designers touted the use of shatter-resistant glass used for the first time in a federal building.
The $33 million horseshoe-shaped structure was built with more than $6 million worth of concrete and $2 million worth of steel. Security cameras surround the building, along with concrete and metal posts to stop vehicles from getting too close.
Inhibiting vehicles from getting too close to the building was an important security feature for designers. The explosion that crumpled the Murrah Building came from an explosive-filled rental truck parked on the street in front of the structure.
But stopping commercial airliners from crashing into the Twin Towers wasn't something beefed-up construction could have stopped. It had to be pre-empted altogether.
No information shared
Perhaps the largest critique of the government's failure to prevent 9/11 was its agencies' inability to share intelligence information that could have thwarted attacks.
In the mid-1990s, federal agencies weren't sharing information with other federal law enforcement and intelligence groups. Local police were often excluded completely from the process and weren't even allowed to gather information on possible terrorist threats, Ricks said.
That's in sharp contrast with what has happened in a post 9/11 world.
“After 9/11, everything changed,” Cid said. “People realized we had to subordinate everything to prevention.”
Law enforcement quit thinking of success in terms of the number of indictments or arrests made following an attack, but by how many acts of terrorism were prevented or pre-empted with intelligence.
“Sept. 11 turned the ship around,” Cid said. “There's something about the deaths of 3,000 people that really clarifies your thinking.”
Since the 2001 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, some 40 terrorist plots have been thwarted, according to the conservative think-tank The Heritage Foundation.
These plots include the so-called shoe bomber, Richard Reid, and the liquid explosives plot of 2006 intended to blow up 10 U.S. bound commercial airliners traveling from overseas.
After 9/11, it was clear the federal government alone couldn't prevent terrorism. Local law enforcement became more involved in the gathering of information. So did the public.
“If you're in law enforcement today, you have counterterrorism responsibilities on some level,” Cid said.
Fusion centers appear
About 40 fusion centers — where local, regional and federal law enforcement share information — have sprung up throughout the country, Ricks said.
“They disseminate information throughout the law enforcement community, not just about terrorism, but about other law enforcement issues as well,” he said.
Alongside this change, the “If You See Something, Say Something Campaign” rolled out, asking citizens to report suspicious behavior to authorities.
But the streamlining and cooperation is far from perfect. The intelligence system as a whole is overly bureaucratic, Ricks said. This makes it difficult for it to change and respond quickly. Also, many people who aren't involved in intelligence gathering can see important information that should be closely guarded.
“The net effect is you don't have any secrets in that area; it's considered a success sometimes to share information. We want info going to people who need the information, not to people who have an idle curiosity.”
There persists a view that those who would attack the U.S. are religious zealots, from poverty-stricken areas with totalitarian rule, and are uneducated or have no hope. Often this translates into a fear of religious or ethnic groups, a conception that overlooks terrorism's broader dynamics.
Cid said there is only one universal attribute among terrorists:
“There is a personal grievance of some kind,” Cid said. “And this grievance they have to them justifies killing other people. That's the common denominator among all terrorists.”
Ricks and Cid said it's important that individuals don't become complacent and forget there is a threat. Yet it's vital to go about one's everyday life.
“I just hope we don't lose that vigilance and another terrible thing happens,” Ricks said.
It's the first obligation of a government to protect its citizens, Cid said. “We should, as a people, accept that the threat from terrorism will never be gone.”
At the same time, the debate should continue about what are acceptable levels of security.
“You can't have absolute liberty or privacy and security,” Cid said. “There has to be a balance.”