It was inevitable that, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, many would ask how such an atrocity could be planned and carried out without catching the attention of the CIA or the FBI, America's vaunted intelligence agencies.
CIA director George Tenet was having breakfast at a Washington hotel when he learned of the attack. Like everyone else, he was taken by surprise. In spite of the nearly 10 years of attacks on American interests here and abroad, including the 1992 bombing of the World Trade Center, the country was caught unawares by the audacity of men willing to commit suicide for their cause while taking thousands of innocent lives with them.
That questions would arise, either trying to pin the blame or make political capital out of the tragedy, is part of the wartime scenario. It happened after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese attack on the Hawaiian military base that led to America's entry into World War II.
The May 27 issue of Newsweek, in an article titled "What Went Wrong?," compared the process of gathering and analyzing intelligence to "taking a metal detector to a city dump." The amount of information that comes in each day from around the world is staggering. In addition to the FBI's and the CIA's sophisticated operations, each branch of the armed services maintains separate intelligence-gathering operations. Unless the information is properly processed and analyzed, it is worthless. Analyzing it properly takes a combination of skill and intuition to connect the dots and develop a clear picture.
An intelligence breakdown
It appears that a counterterrorism expert in the FBI's Phoenix, Arizona, office made a connection last summer regarding the significant number of young Middle Eastern men taking courses in how to fly airplanes. The long memo describing this connection, and raising the possibility that Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network had infiltrated American flight schools, did not attract sufficient attention to ring alarm bells. It was transmitted to the Washington FBI headquarters, but was ignored at higher levels.
Mr. Tenet had issued warnings that Osama bin Laden was "the most immediate" threat. Sadly, those were also ignored. His warnings had been so frequent, and nothing had happened, that he was not taken seriously—like the proverbial boy who cried wolf too often.
The Stratfor Intelligence Service made an insightful analysis in a recent Internet posting. It observed that "the U.S. intelligence system is overwhelmingly geared toward the collection, rather than the analysis, of information. The result is inevitable: a huge amount of information is gathered, but it is never turned into intelligence."
Commenting on the FBI's failure to analyze the memo from the Phoenix field office, it concluded: "Some administrator in the FBI decided that the Phoenix report was not worth pursuing. The facts are not in on this, but it is highly likely that no one provided him with any guidance as to what was significant and what was not, and it is almost certain that he did not have an appropriate context for drawing judgments himself ... Information collected but not analyzed is the same as information that never existed" (Stratfor, "Sept. 11: What Did Bush Know and When Did He Know It?," May 20).
Of course, such matters could be debated for years. Yet Newsweek put the focus on the right question when it said: "At issue is not whom to blame for the past, but how to learn from it to safeguard the future."
Warnings to wake up
Again we ask: How much warning does it take for a people to awaken to the urgency of the times? Considering the years of attacks by terrorists on American interests abroad, the question is vitally important amid the many recent predictions from officials that another major terrorist attack is simply a matter of time.
Although the American government has reacted with increased security measures at airports, nuclear plants and major sporting events, it is left to the individual to consider the right response to the threat of future events. From God's perspective the individual has the weighty responsibility to heed a warning and react.
Jesus Christ used two examples of His day to illustrate this important point. Notice the strong message of warning in Luke 13:1-5. The passage begins, "There were present at that season some who told Him [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices." Some worshipers at the temple were singled out by the Roman governor and killed for no apparent reason.
Christ's reaction to the event was to make a sobering point: "Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish" (emphasis added throughout).
It was fruitless to speculate about whether some were worse sinners than others. He added another well-known tragedy of that time and drew the same lesson. "Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish."
He warned that, unless they repented, they would also be subject to a sudden and violent end—"you will all likewise perish." Many hear of tragedies and go on to live out a normal life and die a normal death. But many who heard Christ's words suffered a horrible fate at the hands of the Roman legions who came to subdue the Jewish nation several decades later. Those who heeded Christ's warning were able to escape the worst of the devastation of Jerusalem.
Christ could foresee the times the world was moving into following its rejection of Him and His message. Today we are again living in those "perilous times" the apostle Paul spoke of in 2 Timothy 3. Christ's words are once again a grave warning for our generation.
Jesus expected all who heard Him to look soberly at such tragedies and make changes in their lives. Unless we heed the warning and repent, He said, we are also subject to meeting the same kind of pointless and futile end.
However, if we are jolted to the stark reality of godly repentance, come to understand the ultimate goal of life and move toward that purpose with unswerving determination, then we will have achieved the highest realm of understanding in life.
Discerning the times
Christ spoke these words on His final journey to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51-53). He was moving toward the final fulfillment of the purpose of His life in the flesh: to die for the sins of every member of the human race. His face was "set" for the journey, and His teaching reflected a no-nonsense approach to the business at hand.
Earlier He had admonished: "Let your waist be girded and your lamps burning; and you yourselves be like men who wait for their master, when he will return from the wedding, that when he comes and knocks they may open to him immediately. Blessed are those servants whom the master, when he comes, will find watching" (Luke 12:35-37).
Watching and discerning the times make up but one part of the equation. We must then act on the knowledge we gain and move with understanding to avoid a time of trouble or the consequences of wrong decisions.
Christ scolded those who seemed to understand they were living in troubled times but could not or would not take the right action to avoid trouble. "Then He also said to the multitudes, 'Whenever you see a cloud rising out of the west, immediately you say, "A shower is coming"; and so it is. And when you see the south wind blow, you say, "There will be hot weather"; and there is. Hypocrites! You can discern the face of the sky and of the earth, but how is it you do not discern this time?'" (verses 54-56).
God is merciful in that He provides a warning for people to change and escape from impending trouble. He is also perfectly patient, giving us time to let the message sink in and move us to change. God is willing to wait many seasons before we wake up and see the need to do something about our lives. But there will ultimately be a time of judgment, both on the world and on the individual.
Christ added a parable to make this point: "A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. Then he said to the keeper of his vineyard, 'Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why does it use up the ground?'
"But he answered and said to him, 'Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down'" (Luke 13:6-9).
God's words of warning act like a two-edged sword, opening our minds to understand the real issues of life. These are laid bare—leaving us with a choice to repent and live righteously before our Creator or to continue stumbling blindly forward toward an abyss.
The message of Ezekiel
The Bible shows that God's pattern has been to send a message of warning before a time of judgment. He is patient and merciful in His desire and effort to save humanity from suffering the consequences of sin. Ezekiel's picture of a watchman on the walls of Israel urging his countrymen to see the sword coming upon the land is a powerful scene from Israel's history.
Ezekiel 33 clearly shows the dual responsibility of the watchman and those he is warning—the citizens of the nation. "When he [the watchman] sees the sword coming upon the land, if he blows the trumpet and warns the people, then whoever hears the sound of the trumpet and does not take warning, if the sword comes and takes him away, his [the citizen's] blood shall be on his own head" (verses 3-4). However, if the watchman fails to do his job, then he will bear a severe judgment for failing in his duty (verse 6).
God makes clear the individual's responsibility to repent, to act on the knowledge of coming trouble. God shows that judgment and trial follows in the wake of sin and iniquity. This is a hard concept for the modern mind to grasp. We have been conditioned to ignore the true cause of our world's problems, which is the violation of the fundamental relationship with our Creator. Until that link is realized, we are destined to suffer tragic consequences greater than any in the past.
The core of God's admonition to mankind is found in Ezekiel 18. The key to healing the breach between man and God is found in transforming your life by turning from sin, the very thing that severs our relationship with God. "'... If a wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed, keeps all My statutes, and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him; because of the righteousness which he has done, he shall live. Do I have any pleasure at all that the wicked should die?' says the Lord God, 'and not that he should turn from his ways and live?'" (verses 21-23).
This section concludes with this stirring call: "'Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. For why should you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies,' says the Lord God. 'Therefore turn and live!'" (verses 31-32).
Read the writing on the wall—and act
God wants us—His creation—to live abundantly, not destructively. But, until a revolution in thinking occurs, we will witness only more suffering.
History shows that nations are unable to read the handwriting of warning on the walls of their times. The Babylonians partied the night away while the Persians slipped in under the gates of Babylon. Before World War II, the most devastating conflict in history, England and America slept while their foes armed themselves in preparation for war. And 12 years ago no one foresaw that Iraq would invade Kuwait, thus setting off the first round of the Persian Gulf War.
In spite of the information, including years of attacks on American interests abroad (and a warm-up attack on the World Trade Center several years earlier), no one could put together a clear picture of an impending catastrophe like that of Sept. 11. How much warning does a nation need before it will make a change and avoid additional sorrow? History is not encouraging, for its record offers little hope.
But you can do something. You can change your life and make a difference within your world. The real question after Sept. 11 is not what the president or other government officials knew and when did they know it. The most important question is: What do you know, and what will you do about it? Only you can provide the answer. GN