Editorial: Local terrorism expert shares his insights

By on May 5, 2011

As word spread of the death of Osama Bin Laden Sunday, the vast majority of us turned to the news to find out more. For Sugar Grove resident and terrorism expert Mike Fagel, he prepared to go on the news.

Moments after President Barack Obama concluded his speech Sunday night confirming the death of Osama Bin Laden, Fagel appeared on the NBC Channel 5 Special Report to provide his insight on the event and its aftermath.

He then made several more media appearances over the next 24 hours, and said that his primary points remained the same for each.

“The topic was the same,” Fagel said. “The price of freedom is vigilance, not vigilantes. If you see something, say something. Go about your daily lives with caution and awareness, but not panic.”

Fagel is a Department of Homeland Security Analyst and a Homeland Security Instructor at Northwestern University, Northern Illinois University and Benedictine University in Emergency Planning and Public Policy. He has spent years as a FEMA reservist responding to many crises, ranging from hurricanes and ice storms to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the 9/11 attacks at the World Trade Center.

So, to say he is an expert on these things might be an understatement.

“I teach at Northwestern, NIU and Benedictine in their homeland security operations,” Fagel said. “I get a sense of accomplishment, training the responders of tomorrow.”

The insights Fagel shared with us can hopefully help us as we struggle to comprehend what the death of Osama Bin Laden really means, as well as our struggle with the range of thoughts and emotions his death has brought back to the surface.

He said that as a World Trade Center responder, he witnessed first-hand the impacts of that day on those who lost loved ones, and those, like him, who responded to the scene.

“The World Trade Center (attack) took a toll on 3,000 families and created a hollow feeling where their family members once were,” he said. “That will never go away.”

Being on the scene at Ground Zero has given him a perspective far different from those of us who experienced it either second hand or by watching it on the news.

“It pushed the mortality to the forefront, where I worked as a scene safety officer for the FDNY for nearly three months,” he said. “The impacts on my co-workers were subtle at first. I stay in touch with two of my teammates these last 10 years on a weekly basis. We all feel a deep sadness, but a sense of pride in what we did together.”

In the 10 years since that awful day, which led our nation to briefly unite in our grief and outrage, much has changed. Fagel explained that those early emotions faded with time.

“Americans changed during 2001, but their tears dried up as we moved farther and farther away from 9-11,” Fagel said.

That former unity could again be seen Sunday night, as spontaneous gatherings formed at the White House, Ground Zero, and other locations throughout the nation. Fagel recalled his initial reaction to the news.

“I was cautiously optimistic when I heard, but was concerned that the retaliation factor may be in the offing,” he said.

As time passed, those concerns increased.

“I became more concerned that as the world became more aware of the ramifications of the event, the other elements, cells, copycats and such may use this opportunity to create havoc,” he explained.

Global travel alerts were issued later Sunday night, and we were repeatedly told about the possibility of a retaliatory attack. For many, those warnings led to a growing unease in the following days. While Fagel agreed with the need for concern, he said that we also need to remember what we have working for us.

“The intelligence community is working 24/7 to keep America and its allies safe,” he said. “It is a daunting task, but, with the proper support, it is manageable.”

Our reactions to Sunday’s news will continue to evolve as time passes, and the relative unity that returned Sunday night has already begun to fade due to skepticism, cynicism, political battles and general distrust expressed by so many in the past few days. While that evolution of thought and emotion will be unique to each one of us, we all share something beyond the pettiness and politics that separates us. Fagel said that in the years between 9/11 and Osama Bin Laden’s death, he worked with people from all over the globe from every background conceivable. Despite all of the differences he saw, he found something we all share.

“I have learned that we are all people under the same hopes, fears and options.”