Wow, a decade has passed since 9-11. It is a date that defines our history like Pearl Harbor (12/7/41), D-Day (6/6/44) and JFK’s assassination (11/22/63). 9-11 was the Pearl Harbor of our generation. An attack on our people on our soil.
I remember every detail of that day like it was yesterday. Part of that is because I was in Washington D.C. and only a short distance from the Pentagon.
I walked out of my hotel on the morning of 9-11, a few blocks from the White House, and hailed a cab for a short ride to my first meeting. I was making a presentation on violence prevention to CSOSA federal probation officers.
The cab driver had the radio cranked and windows down. It was a clear, beautiful morning. I remember thinking how much I love the energy of large cities.
I also thought about a later meeting across the river at the Pentagon with the Department of Defense Domestic Violence Task Force to finalize a training curriculum on family violence prevention and intervention.
It was going to be a crazy day. Little did I know.
At 8:30AM I bounced up the steps to the Federal CSOSA Building on K Street and was faced with a sophisticated security system. Two armed security guards and a screening checkpoint that resembled an airport.
However, one of the security guards asked me if I was there for a meeting. I told him I was speaking at a conference. He ushered me past the security systems without checking me, my bags, my ID or verifying that I was indeed speaking at a conference.
Yikes, that was easy, I thought.
An hour later, I was in full presentation stride when somebody rushed into the room and screamed that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon and World Trade Centers. We were under attack. The participants fled the building like it was on fire. I tried to digest the information and quickly realized my evening flight would probably be grounded.
When I hit the streets there were millions of people moving quickly away from central DC. Mostly on foot. No buses. No Metro. What I remember most was the shell-shocked fear on everyone’s faces and that the only noise was the sound of news radio blasting from cars. Nobody was talking. The cell phone towers were overloaded. People were hustling.
The first thing I did when I got to the hotel was turn on the TV and watched as the twin towers collapsed. My stomach is twisting right now remembering all of this.
This past week I have been talking with my kids a lot about 9-11. Understanding that only one of my kids was even alive at the time, he was 2.
As I have watched the documentaries this week, the emotions have come rushing back. I listen to all the mistakes that were made pre-9-11 and cannot help but relate that to background screening.
So I came up with 5 lessons from 9-11 that relate to a criminal record check:
- Polices are Only Effective if Followed. The security process at the federal building I described earlier is indicative of a policy failure. A policy without teeth is worthless. If your background screening policy requires a background check then that applies to everybody…CEO, police officer, FBI agent or pastor. No exceptions.
- Fractured Systems. Clearly the big lesson from 9-11 was the agencies armed with protecting us did not and could not communicate. The police and fire first responders could not communicate on the same radio frequencies. An intelligence agency having information about the Hamburg Terror Cell and 9-11 plans did not communicate with the FBI because their attorneys would not allow them to. Background checks are much like our intelligence community. There is little sharing of information so a background check requires a screening program of checks and balances that rely on multiple layers or screening solutions including criminal databases and county courts.
- Complacency. We have seen this again post 9-11. I went back to the same federal building after 9-11 and the security process still allowed me to bypass it. Complacency in with a criminal record check will get people hurt.
- The Enemy is Determined. The masterminds of 9-11 planned it for years. They were very patient and meticulous in their preparation. This is a huge lesson for organizations working with vulnerable populations. People who harm children seek positions that give them access to children. They are extremely determined. If your background screening process is weak, the enemy will exploit it.
- Looks Can Be Deceiving. We have watched too many horror movies if we believe “bad people” look a certain way. The 9-11 hijakers were not scary looking. They were highly educated, intelligent and normal looking. Even one airline ticket counter representative looked at Mohammed Atta and his “gut” instinct told him something was wrong. Atta had purchased a one-way first class ticket for $2500 which was abnormal and he seemed angry. The ticket rep pushed this aside and convinced himself Atta was a businessman by the way he dressed. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you can predict if someone is good because of how they look or how long you have known them. The airline representative had evidence but allowed Atta’s appearance to convince him that everything was okay.
As we pause to reflect on the tragedy of 9-11, we are going to hear a lot about system failures. Let’s make a pledge to take these hard-learned lessons and improve the safety and security of our organizations.
Contact us today for a review of your background screening policy.