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By Nick Wakeman

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Nick Wakeman

Lessons from 9/11 and reasons for optimism

Tomorrow (Saturday) marks 20 years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and that fateful day still looms large in our nation’s psyche.

With the anniversary coming so close to the less-than stellar withdrawal from Afghanistan, there has been more soul-searching than with past anniversaries.

Whether we agree with the premise or not, I’m sure we’ve all seen the articles about how the terrorist attacks brought out the worst in America. Many have drawn a downward line from Sept. 11 and that initial spark of unity to Jan. 6 when our nation’s divisiveness was on full display.

I’m not going to argue that one way or another. I tend to be an optimist so my view isn’t that dark. But it also isn’t the first time America has shown a dark side by taking actions that in hindsight are so obliviously wrong. Remember, we put Americans of Japanese descent in internment camps during World War II.

But nearly 3,000 people were killed on Sept. 11, 2001 and threats still exist from groups and countries that want to do us harm. So it is worth looking back a little on what the terrorist attacks meant and what they still mean.

I’m not qualified to give a geopolitical analysis but I’ll share a few observations.

Lesson 1: Keeping striving for ways to break down technological barriers

I talked with a lot of executives and government officials in the weeks and months following the terrorist attacks. One thing still stands out to me is how quickly the government was able to identify the individual terrorists, including where they had lived and where they took flight training.

“If you look at what we knew about these terrorists within 24 hours, the data was already out there,” Renny DiPentima told me at the time. Retired today, at the time he was president of SRA International.

The problem was the data resided in different systems that didn’t share or talk to each other. It was a huge challenge then and despite the advent of cloud computing and open source, sharing is still a challenge today. We must do more.

Lesson 2: Focus on common goals and not the agency or company name on the business card

The government had plenty of councils and groups already in place before the terrorist attacks. This was after all nearly a decade after the Reinventing Government initiative of the Clinton administration.

But the terrorist attacks added new energy to efforts to breakdown silos and get people across agencies and between industry and government to talk to one another more. The creation of the Homeland Security Department brought together 22 agencies involved in security. The Federal CIO Council became even more active.

Industry groups such as ACT-IAC (then known as the Federation of Government Information Processing Councils), AFCEA and the Professional Services Council have increasingly become platforms for industry and government cooperation.

But there is still so much more that can be done today. Human nature continues to get in the way. People often don’t want to share. The question of “what’s in it for me” can loom large.

The Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol Building has laid bare the challenges that remain when it comes to cooperation. That was a failure of people and leadership, not technology.

Lesson 3: Leaders lead; be a leader

In the past 18 months, we’ve faced three watershed events that have shaken us in ways similar to the terrorist attacks: The COVID-19 pandemic, the murder of George Floyd and the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

In some ways, the country has reacted admirably but in other ways we’ve fallen short. The country hasn’t reacted in the unified manner that followed the terrorist attacks. Perhaps that’s because the “enemies” are domestic and not foreign. But that doesn’t make it right.

Government contractors have set some good examples over the last year by supporting diversity and inclusion efforts and paying greater attention to employee health, physical and mental, during the pandemic.

Companies have a historic opportunity to provide leadership because we can’t solely rely on the government to address these issues. It takes both.

How you lead your company and the values and examples you set for your employees has never been more important. It means something to the country as well as to your success.

Lesson 4: Why I’m optimistic

A lot of the coverage of the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks has focused on the negative, and I’m not so naïve that I don’t see the dark side. But we can’t just look at one side to the exclusion of the other.

Many challenges remain and some are worse today than 20 years ago. Afghanistan may well become a safe haven for terrorism again.

But I’m optimistic because we don’t give up. The technological strides of the last 20 years have been impressive -- cloud computing, artificial intelligence and open source to name a few. They are changing how we live and work for the better.

The government contracting industry has grown and matured. A lot of wealth has been created, but that’s not a bad thing. The private sector is now indispensable to government operations and that means a growing pipeline of new technologies and innovation.

Like the past, the future will be messy and contentious. We’ll make mistakes but we’ll keep trying to make things better. We really don’t have a choice.

Posted by Nick Wakeman on Sep 10, 2021 at 2:53 PM

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