'Are we safer?'

Stephen Flynn’s voice cracks when he recalls a close friend and colleague lost in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Flynn was in New York on business that day and witnessed the devastation firsthand.

But what the president of the Center for National Policy (CNP) in Washington also remembers about that experience is, “there was an almost instantaneous sense of unity and selflessness that came together.”

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Flynn recounted people helping each other and joining in a shared sense of purpose during that dark hour and the days that followed, even when no one asked them to do so.

That was a legacy, and a lesson learned, from an event that commemorates its 10th anniversary this month. And one Flynn and others hope to focus on in the future.

To that end, the CNP, along with the Voices of Sept. 11 and the Rockefeller Foundation, on Thursday hosts the 9/11 Tenth Anniversary Summit: Remembrance, Renewal, Resilience.

Taking place at the Newseum, the event will bring together politicians — including Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), and former 9/11 Commission Chairman Tom Kean — to explore lessons learned from the tragedy.

“This is a seismic moment in our national history, and it obviously had an enormous impact on our national psyche,” Flynn said. “And with all that attention being directed, there’s a potential here for it to be a teachable moment, that you could offer up not just what went wrong … but more ‘Where do we go from here?’ ”

According to Collins, the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, the U.S. still faces terrorist threats 10 years on, including from “homegrown” terrorists, the mobility of terrorists and cyberattacks.

“The operation that killed Osama bin Laden was the kind of successful collaboration of intelligence and operations that we envisioned in reforming our capabilities and intelligence community,” Collins wrote in an email. “That is not to say, however, that more must not be done.”

Over the past two years, the U.S. has seen a sharp escalation in the number of homegrown terrorist plots, Collins said. The Congressional Research Service has reported that between May 2009 and July 2011, arrests were made in connection with 31 homegrown plots by American citizens or legal permanent residents.

“This year, we will commemorate the worst attack ever on the United States. In doing so, we must ask ourselves, are we safer? Or are we just safer from the tactics the terrorists already have tried?” Collins said.

Collins will explore this and other homeland security issues during the summit’s 9/11 Commission panel discussion. The event will include a series of documentary films highlighting untold stories of American resilience arising from 9/11.

One such documentary, titled “Civil Society’s Response — The Rescue Armada,” is narrated by Tom Hanks and tells the story of the civilian watercraft that came together with no prior planning to evacuate hundreds of thousands of people from Lower Manhattan.

This is one of the greatest successes, and failures, of our nation’s response to the terrorist attacks. According to Flynn, the country missed a golden opportunity to parlay the sense of unity and camaraderie during 9/11 by not asking everyday people to do their part.

Labeled a “call to action,” the summit will serve to kick off a National Resilience Campaign that aims to teach Americans to draw on and harness the extraordinary and inspirational response from the 2001 tragedy.

The program is designed to encourage people and organizations to focus on community service and become better prepared for adversity now and in the future.

“Resilience has always been a part of the national DNA. It’s a big element of the folks who landed here in the first place and marched across the frontier,” said Flynn, who is also a former Coast Guard commander and senior fellow for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Since resilience is a core value we want to have as a society, you’ve got to help us build that resilience, and the building block starts with the individual,” he said.

But, Flynn added, the goal is not to eliminate risk, an aim he views as an impossibility.

“This notion that we should live in a risk-free world where we achieve nirvana when we’ve eliminated risk and everybody floats around their lives thereafter — that’s entirely unrealistic,” he said. “We can’t get there from here. We will not eliminate risk. 

Instead, facing adversity and overcoming it builds character and confidence, Flynn said.

“This is important for the country to hear this message and get engaged,” he said. It’s this proactive approach, according to Flynn, that differentiates the summit from 10th anniversary commemoration activities planned in New York City and elsewhere.

It was for this reason, though, that the summit was scheduled in advance of Sept. 11 — so as not to detract from memorials on that day, Flynn said.

In addition to hosting the summit, the Newseum will offer special events tied to the anniversary, spokesman Jonathan Thompson said.

On Sept. 2, a new section of the museum’s FBI exhibit opened to the public. Titled “War on Terror: The FBI’s New Focus,” the display tells how the FBI’s mission changed after 9/11.

New artifacts on display will include engine parts and landing gear from the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center, as well as shoe bomber Richard Reid’s shoes and the matches he used in his failed attempt to blow up a plane.

 The Newseum will also waive its admission fees to all visitors on Sept. 10 and 11, marking the first time since its opening in 2008 that admission has been free to the public.

For Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, participating in the 10th anniversary summit is a privilege.

“He is honored to participate in the program with leaders who were key to ensuring the nation learned the lessons of Sept. 11, 2001, and who have worked so hard to make sure the nearly 3,000 innocents who lost their lives on 9/11 did not die in vain,” the committee’s press secretary said.