Looking ahead, with vigilance

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(Credit: Tim Foley Illustration)

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September 11, 2001, marked the end of innocence for generations of Americans, and the beginning of an era that tests the nation's spirit.

Before that day it was unthinkable for many that a murderous group of foreign extremists could strike the nation's financial and military establishments to such devastating effect. On that day, almost 3,000 people, many from Long Island, were killed, victims of zealots who betrayed their Islamic faith with this cold-blooded slaughter.

How could this have happened to us? The United States won the Cold War. We were the world's lone superpower. The nation prospered and enjoyed peace. For all those too young to have personal memories of Pearl Harbor, wars were something that happened over there, not here.

So it was a profound awakening on that crisp late-summer morning when 19 savage men armed with box-cutters took control of commercial jetliners and commandeered three of them into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. A fourth hurtled into a field in Pennsylvania, well short of its suspected target in the nation's capital, thanks to the astonishing bravery and sacrifice of passengers who took on the hijackers.

It defied belief as those two 110-story towers of steel and glass and concrete, filled with people going about the routines of their lives, collapsed into a mountain of rubble, blanketing lower Manhattan in a choking haze of smoke and ash. The attack brought fury, the destruction of so many lives was an agony. The acrid odor of death from the smoldering pit lingered in the air for months, in the memory forever.

It was a moment that forges a nation. In an instant, people of every imaginable background united in purpose and resolve. At that terrible time, we were at our best.

In the weeks after the World Trade Center fell, 90,000 firefighters, police and volunteers plunged into rescue and recovery operations at Ground Zero. The nation declared war on terrorists. We hardened security at home. An enraged, insecure public girded for a long battle with a shadowy enemy. Thursday night's alert, based on credible but uncorraborated information about an al-Qaida plot targeting anniversary ceremonies in New York City or Washington D.C., is evidence its murderous intent remains.

 

A decade later -- despite the Fort Hood shootings in 2009, allegedly by an American soldier influenced by Islamist rhetoric -- it seems to be a battle we're winning. There hasn't been a successful terrorist attack inside the United States since 9/11. Several plots were thwarted, others bumbled. Al-Qaida has been run out of Afghanistan, its members scattered and its leadership decimated.

Osama bin Laden was hunted down and killed.

We made mistakes along the way. The war in Iraq was a deadly and costly distraction. The nation's descent into torture, indefinite detention and some wayward Predator drone attacks forfeited some of the moral high ground we owned after 9/11. We're still addicted to Middle East oil. And rather than paying for wars launched in Afghanistan and Iraq, Congress cut taxes and put those invasions on the nation's credit card. It was the beginning of the federal government's slide into the red that bedevils us still.

The threat hasn't been eliminated -- especially the nightmare scenario of terrorists with nukes or other weapons of mass destruction. We must remain vigilant and should redouble our efforts to drive nuclear nonproliferation and corral "loose nukes" in places such as the former Soviet Union.

And the major terrorist threat is no longer just al-Qaida as it existed on 9/11

The threat today also comes from radicalized, homegrown insurrectionists, most of whom have, fortunately, proved to be incompetent terrorists. Still, a decade after the day that changed the nation, we shouldn't make the mistake of fighting the last war.

The Middle East is in flux. Long home to what seemed an inexhaustible supply of angry young men with little to lose who blamed the West for their woes, it's now the site of the Arab Spring. Rebels have ousted repressive regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The region that has been a breeding ground for terrorists appears poised for a change, perhaps even democracy.

We must continue monitoring al-Qaida and its offshoots in places such as Yemen and keep them on the run. But we shouldn't let that blind us to other emerging security concerns.

Sophisticated cyberterrorism, for instance, would involve computer hackers who could cripple the nation by shutting down the financial sector or power and communication grids, air and vehicular traffic control systems or disrupting water supplies. Such high-tech tampering might be directed by nations, but it could be carried out by a few individuals, making it difficult to pinpoint the origin of an attack, affix blame and retaliate effectively to that kind of act of war.

 

A more traditional challenge from a new economic power is also a distinct possibility. China's economy is growing, its military spending has increased in recent years and its influence in the region and the world is expanding. All of that could pose a threat to the United States should relations between the two nations sour over such things as China's currency manipulation, threats to U.S. allies in the region, burgeoning appetite for oil and support for nations, such as Iran, that we see as rogue states.

Such concerns would have been beneath notice on Sept. 11, 2001, when the nation was bleeding and another terrorist attack was our worst nightmare. While al-Qaida has taken a beating over the past 10 years, the specter of terrorist attack may never entirely disappear.

Still, there's a lesson in our response to 9/11 that we should heed, as economic uncertainty and political dysfunction have many questioning whether the American dream will survive. The nation is at its best when we sacrifice for the common good.

We did when the pain we commemorate today was fresh. We need to again.

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