As the crowd of students, professors and Houstonians brushed off the cold, Philip Zelikow stepped to the podium in The Honors College Commons on Thursday to discuss the US government’s defense against terrorism.
Zelikow, the executive director of the 9/11 Commission, an executive on the President Intelligence Advisory Board and a history professor at the University of Virginia, focused his lecture, “The Twilight of War,” on America’s resiliency and his experience with the horrific events of 9/11.
“It’s my job to make meaning of 9/11,” Zelikow said.
During the lecture, Zelikow spoke of his personal experiences on the scene during Sept. 11.
“I can still smell the sulfur, it stands out,” Zelikow said. “It was as if the terrorist opened up a special path to hell.”
“After the attack, the event entered popular culture,” Zelikow said. “9/11 opened up our eyes to zealousy.”
In the days following the attack, President Bush labeled Osama bin Laden as America’s enemy and the ringleader of 9/11.
“I disagreed with President Bush when he openly pointed the finger at bin Laden,” Zelikow said.
“It made Osama glorious and that’s what he wanted, to be glorified. These people think we are important and they develop complexes about us, so for our President to recognize one of them was a big deal.”
Since Sept. 11, officials have charged Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in connection with the attack, labeling him as the mastermind. Mohammed is being held in Guantanamo Bay for alleged acts of terrorism.
“Bin Laden was a pinnacle for fantasist, like Mohammed – who identify with a creed vs. a nation,” Zelikow said.
“Once bin Laden said, ‘lives would become true and meaningful at the explosive moment of the deed,’ fantasists began to plot.”
Zelikow placed emphasis on these fantasists and said they were the cause of Sept. 11.
“They were a group of young people, 20 to 30 of them,” Zelikow said. “We tried to make 9/11 a grand narrative, but it’s not. It was a group of alienated young people.”
According to Zelikow, a graduate of the UH Law School, our government has become reactionary rather than proactive.
“The measure of a government is how it handles failure,” Zelikow said.
“Culturally we defend and adapt to failure.”
Though fears of an attack have diminished, Zelikow insisted that contemporary society will remain vulnerable.
“We are still vulnerable,” Zelikow said. “We need to be resilient as a society against systematic threats.”
The National Transportation Safety Board is a government organization built to examine the systematic threats and to manage risks. According to Zelikow, risk management is our government’s principle function.
“This organization represents thought and earned trust,” Zelikow said. “Its sole purpose is to explain what went wrong and why.”
As the hour lecture drew to an end, Professor Zelikow’s voice was still strong.
“Al-Qaeda is the enemy,” Zelikow said. “They are an unslayable power.”