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Lessons from the 9/11/ Commission Report

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Boruch Leff

Overcoming our failure of imagination.

Last week, I, like millions of others around the world, read, with great interest, the summary of the 570-page report of the September 11 Investigative Commission.

Neither president -- George W. Bush or Bill Clinton -- was blamed for his actions or lack thereof more than another.

"They, like the rest of us, did not understand the gravity of the threat ... they did not think that 3,000 people could be killed in an hour's time," panel co-chairman Lee Hamilton said. "All of us had signals ... we simply did not put them together to understand that terrorism was the predominant national security threat to the United States."

Commission chairman Thomas Kean said there was only one mention of terrorism during the 2000 election campaign and added that the seriousness of the threat wasn't realized because intelligence information didn't reach the uppermost echelons of government.

"I can tell you that the two presidents of the United States were not well served by the intelligence agencies and they did not, in my opinion, have the information they needed to make the decisions they needed to make," he said.

"It is not our purpose to assign blame… we look back so that we can look forward," he added. "Our goal is to prevent future attacks."


Each political party was hoping that the aftermath of the 9/11 commission report would work to their advantage.

Nothing of the sort happened. The September 11 Commission taught the country and the world a tremendous lesson. When faced with a calamity as horrific as the WTC/Pentagon attacks, and with a strong potential for another attack in the future, playing the 'blame game' would not be productive. Obviously, nobody, not Clinton nor Bush, not Democrat nor Republican, wanted the 9/11 attacks to occur. Why then should we look to assign blame upon a particular person?

How many times do we look to blame someone after we experience disappointments in our lives?

Now more than ever we need to revert back to that special national unity that we all felt during those months following September 11. Making someone the scapegoat for the national failure to anticipate 9/11 would lead us away from that goal.

How many times do we look to blame someone after we experience disappointments in our lives? Is that a mature and productive activity?

We intuitively realize that it is never really helpful to play the 'blame game'. How many times do we tell our kids this very thing? We all hear our kids saying after one of them spilled the milk on the floor, "It's not my fault! He moved the bowl while I was pouring!" or "It's her fault! She shouldn't have walked by while I was throwing the ball!" Don't we always tell them that it doesn't matter whose fault it is; that the important thing is how we can avoid the problem in the future?

The next time we face disappointment, let's make sure we don't surrender to 'blame game' tactics. Let's focus on learning the lessons to prevent a future occurrence.


There was another lesson that stared me in the face after reading the news of the 9/11 Commission Report.

Virtually all of the headlines and news stories mentioned the one phrase that captured the essence of the findings.

The commission cited a "failure of imagination" that they said kept U.S. officials from understanding the al Qaeda threat before the attacks on New York and Washington that killed nearly 3,000.

That phrase kept repeating itself in my head. Failure of Imagination. Something about it hit me very personally.

What does it mean to have a failure of the imagination? It means that one fails to see beyond his/her immediate vision and scope. One only sees what is immediately in front of him and does not strive to look for anything beyond. One lacks the depth and foresight to envision a scenario that he may never have thought of before.

How often do I sell myself short because I have experienced a failure of imagination? Do I focus only on what's directly in front of me? Do I just accept my life as it is and become too complacent, not working and striving for who I can truly become?

Do I ever try to internalize the statement of our Sages, "Everyone is obligated to ask himself, 'When will my actions reach those of my forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?" (Midrash Eliyahu Rabba, ch. 25)

One of the most famous explanations of this statement is that although we really shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking we can become as holy and great as the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, we must attempt to go that far if we are to accomplish anything at all. As the expression goes, "Shoot for the moon. At the very least, you'll end up among the stars!"

We can't succumb to a failure of imagination when it comes to our own personal achievement and excellence.

We can't succumb to a failure of imagination when it comes to our own personal achievement and excellence. We must work hard at our professions to maximize our skills. We can't settle for less than what we can truly accomplish.

We must strive to pray with more fervor. We must find more time to study Torah and study it with more enthusiasm. We must work on becoming kinder and gentler. We have to discover ways to work on controlling our anger. We must set spiritual goals and meet them. The list goes on.

We must imagine ourselves as greater people than we think we are. And we really can be greater than we are. We just need to expand our horizons and see beyond what is in front of us.

As a wise man once said, "If you can imagine it, you can achieve it."


Still, it is very difficult to think 'out of the box', especially when it comes to spiritual growth. It's hard to see myself as anything great when I'm not there yet. How can we begin a process of striving for more than what we have grown accustomed to?

We need to challenge ourselves with exploratory questions (some of which are taken from a book called 'Ever Wonder', by Kobi Yamada):

  • When was the last time you did something for the first time?
  • In order to find yourself, are you willing to lose yourself?
  • What do you really want from life?
  • Must you see it to believe it, or do you have to believe it, in order to see it?
  • Do you doubt your doubts?
  • What would you attempt if you knew you couldn't fail?
  • Do you let your yesterday use up too much of your today?
  • How old would you be if you didn't know how old you were?

These kinds of questions can help us re-frame what our goals and aspirations are presently, and what they really should be.


We also need to begin to take small steps toward change.

If I were to ask you today to change your entire lifestyle overnight so that by tomorrow you'll be as learned and as pious as the greatest Torah leader alive, you would probably be unable to accomplish it. This is not because you are not a good person and don't have a great spiritual yearning. Rather, there are some challenges that are so overwhelming that they are virtually impossible.

Perhaps, given a few years of profound growth, it would be possible, but it is not presently. People usually change and grow gradually. If someone takes on too much, too fast, the growth very often does not have any lasting effects.

We need to make a small manageable change. And when we see our successful implementation of this change, we will be encouraged to do more.


We also need to eliminate our bad habit of making excuses for ourselves.

We all know that when we really want to accomplish something, nothing can stand in our way. If I am a diehard sports fan and the big championship is being played, I must find a way to get tickets to the game. I'll wait on line for 24 hours straight if I have to, but I will get the tickets. If my car breaks down, I'll walk. There will be no room for excuses.

That old cliche, "Where there's a will, there's a way," happens to be true. But the question is: what does our will really want? Can we honestly say that we are not studying Torah, praying, or performing acts of kindness well because we are too tired or too busy? Or is it that we don't have a strong will in these spiritual areas? Do we cave in when faced with even a slight obstacle or do we carry on with an "It has to work at all costs" attitude?

How much do we really desire spiritual growth? How often do we let excuses reign?

We would do well to remember what a wise man once said: "Do or do not. There is no try."


The 9/11 Commission spent countless hours over the past few years researching, analyzing, interviewing and preparing recommendations for how America can prevent future terror attacks. We owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude for their very difficult and tedious work, which will hopefully make America safer.

But we must also thank them for teaching us a few personal growth lessons as well.

Don't blame. Learn from the experience and move forward.

Always look past your present reality. Use your imagination to go beyond your present achievement.

Empowered with these lessons, perhaps one day we really will reach the actions of our forefathers.


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