The legacy of 9/11

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and serves as a point to measure the indelible impact that day has had on the American people. In recent weeks, much has been written and broadcast about the shock and horror of that day and its lasting influence on public policy and even the national psyche.

Such a commemoration is only natural, given the gravity of that day. Perhaps, for some, there is a catharsis to be found in reliving those fateful hours when so many watched in disbelief as two passenger jets struck the World Trade Center buildings in New York, a third hit the Pentagon, and a fourth crashed in a rural Pennsylvania farm field. Certainly, it is a fitting time to remember those who died and give comfort to the families who lost so much.

But for those old enough to have witnessed those tragic events, the immediate aftermath remains still so deeply etched on the collective consciousness that no video replays or eyewitness interviews are required: The Twin Towers fell and nearly 3,000 people died, among them hundreds of New York City police officers and firefighters who rushed into the burning buildings despite the danger. The nation grieved, united, and then it sought justice, launching military action in Afghanistan against the rulingTaliban, which had supported and provided refuge to al-Qaida and its leader, Osama bin Laden, who had directed the hijackings.

That action would evolve into what then-President George W. Bush called a war on terror, a heightened concern for a foreign "axis of evil," and eventually the invasion of Iraq and considerable changes in U.S. national security and intelligence policies. It also set off any number of debates over how the U.S. should treat and interrogate prisoners linked to al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations and how national security might be balanced against civil liberties.

Some of the responses that grew out of that event were reasonable and prudent. Some were regrettable. But even now, there is considerable disagreement among Americans over many of the issues that sprang from that day, from the prosecution of accused terrorists to how government should ensure our domestic security — and how much it should spend to do it.

But if the intervening years have provided some measure of historical perspective on Sept. 11, a more fundamental question is raised by this latest anniversary. What did al-Qaida and the 19 men who boarded those passenger jets on that fateful September morning ultimately gain for their cause? Did they, for the lack of a better word, "win"?

Exactly what motivated bin Laden and the terrorists is often in dispute, but, as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States reported, the stated goal of the extremist group was to inflict such horrific damage on the U.S. that it would withdraw its presence in Saudi Arabia and the Muslim world. Bin Laden sought a global jihad, rallying Islamic extremists who believe themselves victims of Western oppression and colonialism.

That has not happened. Yes, the threat posed by al-Qaida and similarly motivated extremist organizations remains — in fact, officials reported late this week that they were concerned about a credible but unsubstantiated tip that another attack might be imminent, timed to today's anniversary. But as a whole, the threat appears diminished, and the majority of those living in the Middle East today have not embraced bin Laden's world outlook. If anything, the region has become somewhat more democratic than before, with several of its oppressive leaders swept away in the Arab Spring — not by terrorism but through civil uprising, rallying not over U.S. actions but more fundamental problems of poverty, food prices and lack of democratic institutions. Some of the region's dictators, whose allegiances to the West so outraged bin Laden and his followers, have been deposed, but they have been replaced by fledgling democratic movements, not a new incarnation of the Taliban.

Bin Laden himself is dead, killed in a late-night attack in May on his compound in Pakistan by a U.S. Navy SEAL team, his body buried at sea. Yet even that surprising event failed to put the U.S. in the cross-hairs of terrorists from a region of the world now caught up in a whirlwind of government reform and conciliation.

Americans were shocked and saddened by the tremendous loss of life on Sept. 11, and by the unimaginable cruelty of those who planned and executed the attacks. But the more primal response was that of fear: fear that this assault on our basic sense of safety and security was just the beginning, that we would face more and deadlier attacks in the days and years to come. It came on the heels of the assaults on the U.S.S. Cole and on two American embassies in Africa, and it spoke to an escalation in a conflict we did not understand and did not know how to deal with.

Al-Qaida has managed other significant operations since Sept. 11 — in particular, its bombings in London and Spain — and the U.S. has suffered other attacks inspired by Islamic extremism, such as the shootings at Fort Hood. But the group has not managed anything on the order of Sept. 11 again, and for most, the terror of that day has faded. Fear plays in the background of American life in a way it did not before Sept. 11. It underlies the debates over closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay and how fast to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, but it has lost the immediate, palpable quality it had in the weeks and months that followed the attack. In that sense, the perpetrators have also failed.

The greatest lament about what has happened during the last 10 years, inevitably, will be that we lost the sense of unity we had in the fall of 2001. It is an appealing sentiment to think that we might have used that spirit to place ourselves on a better path, or that we might now be able to rekindle it to achieve some great national purpose. But the question is, what purpose, and with whose idea about how to achieve it? Unity of opinion has never been a hallmark of this nation founded by revolutionaries. Even in times of shared purpose — the Depression, World War II, the Cold War — we have always had robust debates about what path to take. It is the nature of our national character, and any attempt to use the memory of an event like Sept. 11 to quash political dissent only cheapens the losses we suffered that day.

Better, instead, to take a moment today for meditation or prayer, to search for true empathy for the families of those who were killed 10 years ago, and to be thankful for all that we still have. As a nation, we have made mistakes and suffered setbacks since Sept. 11, 2001. We may never again be able to consider ourselves truly safe no matter how strong our military or steadfast our resolve. But we have done the only thing that the 2,977 victims of the attacks were trying to do that day, and that is to live our lives. A decade after Sept. 11, that may be the best legacy we can achieve.

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