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Five Long Years

Are we safer today than on Sept. 11, 2001?


I wasn't born yet when word of the attack of Pearl Harbor crackled over the nation's radios in 1941, but I know that people of my parents' generation never forgot where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.

Like almost every American who was alive in 1963, though, I remember exactly where I was when I heard about President Kennedy's assassination: on the playground at Laura Ingalls Wilder Elementary School. A classmate named Vivian Harvey told me the news; that fact is the only thing I remember about Vivian Harvey, 43 years later.

Similarly, five years later, I recall hearing the news of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks more vividly than I can remember what I had for lunch just yesterday. I was in my office in Cincinnati—our escape to New Mexico not yet even a dream—when Sandy Carpenter came in to tell me that a plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center. (It's Sandy's fate to forever be the Vivian Harvey of my 9/11 recollections, I'm afraid.) I was getting ready to fly to a genealogy conference in Davenport, Iowa, the next day. It would be several hours before it became clear that no one would be flying anywhere in America for a while.

Even as a boy in 1963, like many Americans I thought the world would never be the same after JFK's assassination. In the case of 9/11, if anything, most people underestimated how radically the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon would remake our world.

As two scientists, Clark R. Chapman and Alan W. Harris, observed in a controversial essay analyzing the statistics of 9/11 on the first anniversary of the attacks, "The disproportionate reaction to 9/11 was as damaging as the direct destruction of lives and property. . . . As we obsessively and excessively beef up internal security and try to dismantle terrorist groups worldwide, Americans actually feed the terrorists' purposes."

While in no way discounting the tragic loss of life from 9/11, Chapman and Harris tried to put that toll into perspective: Every month, the number of fatalities on US highways exceeds the total deaths from 9/11. Every year, five times as many Americans will be murdered as died on 9/11.

A statistic that those researchers could not have known in 2002 etches the continuing cost of 9/11 still more sharply: Sometime in the next few weeks—it may even have happened by the time you read this—the tally of US soldiers' deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan will exceed the roughly 3,000 who died in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the four hijacked airplanes on Sept. 11, 2001.


However disproportionate our national response to 9/11 may or may not have been, on this fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks the question must be asked: Is America today any safer than it was in 2001? Given the price we have paid in blood, billions, fear, civil liberties and simple inconvenience, has it all at least been worth it?

The quick answer is of course yes, since after all there have been no comparable terrorist attacks on US soil since 9/11. Other countries—notably Spain and Britain—have suffered horrifically from al Qaeda, but whatever we've done must have worked.

That glib response, however, ignores the ever-mounting US fatalities in Iraq. When we've placed tens of thousands of American troops in harm's way right in the terrorists' backyard, al Qaeda hardly needs to risk attacks halfway around the globe. Arguably, most of the 2,454 US soldiers who've died in Iraq (as of this writing) since President Bush declared "mission accomplished" could be tallied as a victim of terrorists.

Since the US invasion and occupation, Iraq has replaced Afghanistan as the training ground for the next generation of "professionalized" terrorists, according to a 2005 report by the CIA's National Intelligence Council. Iraq provides terrorists with "a training ground, a recruitment ground, the opportunity for enhancing technical skills," said David B. Low, the national intelligence officer for transnational threats. "There is even, under the best scenario, over time, the likelihood that some of the jihadists who are not killed there will, in a sense, go home, wherever home is, and will therefore disperse to various other countries."

The fact that Saddam Hussein has been deposed and captured adds not a whit to our post-9/11 safety; no credible evidence has ever been presented linking him to the attacks. The actual mastermind behind 9/11, Osama bin Laden, remains at large, and the CIA recently disbanded its special unit dedicated to looking for him. Imagine the outcry if a serial killer responsible for some 3,000 murders was still on the loose and unpunished after five years—yet that's exactly the case with our prosecution of the 9/11 crimes.

At least Afghanistan, the Taliban hotbed that birthed al Qaeda, has been a success story—until recently. American and NATO casualties have been rising there in some of the deadliest fighting since 2001. The US-backed government "is in danger of losing the battle for Afghan hearts and minds," reports the New York Times. And Lt. Gen. David Richards, the British head of NATO's International Security Force in Afghanistan, recently told a conference of the Royal United Services Institute, "The situation is close to anarchy. We're running out of time."


Last month's foiled multiple hijackings in Britain spotlight just how vulnerable to would-be jihadists we remain. "After spending $20 million on aviation security, we still have not developed a defense against ideas terrorists had six years before 9/11," note Susan and Joseph Trento, authors of Unsafe at Any Altitude. The potential dangers of liquids on board airplanes, they point out, have been known for more than a decade. Why did it take this frightening near-miss for officials to belatedly begin working on implementing technology to differentiate explosives from Chanel No. 5 and Crest toothpaste?

For that matter, which really makes us safer—ripping Chapstick out of the purse of a 70-year-old grandma in Des Moines, or keeping actual terror suspects off airplanes in the first place? Yet, after five years, the government's program to enable people to register and prove they are "trusted travelers" is in place in only one airport, Orlando. There, even when the British scare sparked excrutiating lines in airports everywhere, fliers registered in the program were still getting through security in just two or three minutes.

Those who argue that revelation of that British hijacking plot should somehow silence critics of the Iraq war display a basic misunderstanding of the laws of cause and effect. Jon B. Wolfsthal of the Center for Strategic and International Studies commented immediately after the foiled plot, "If I could ask one question as an interrogator to the guys they just arrested, I'd want to find out who they were and what they were thinking about this kind of attack before Iraq, or after. I'd want to know whether they have longstanding anger at the US, or are we adding fuel to the fire, and making new extremists. I don't mean that Iraq was right or wrong, but every action has consequences."

Defining every action from Iraq to Afghanistan to would-be terror attacks as all part of some endless global "war on terror" is "an open-ended invitation to defeat," James Fallows presciently wrote in last month's Atlantic Monthly. "Sometime there will be more bombings, shootings and other disruptions in the United States. . . . If they occur while the war is still on, they're enemy 'victories,' not misfortunes of the sort that great nations suffer."


So where does that leave us, five years after 9/11, here in our little corner of the Southwest? Except perhaps for White Sands Missile Range, we're thankfully scarce of potential terror targets. Even if terrorists are really sneaking across the border here—as has been persistently rumored since 9/11—they're likely to move on before revealing themselves.

All Americans pay the price of the "war on terror," of course—in taxes and deficits, in airport security lines and fear. Some pay more dearly than the rest of us, like the loved ones of Spc. Jose Zamora, age 24, of Sunland Park, who was killed in Baghdad last month when an "improvised explosive device" was detonated near the Humvee he was riding in. Spc. Zamora was engaged to be married in January.

It would be comforting to be able to say that we're safer, back here in Spc. Jose Zamora's home state, because of the ultimate sacrifice he and nearly 3,000 brave soldiers like him have made. But we'd be kidding ourselves.

The truth is that the world is a much more dangerous place than it was on Sept. 11, 2001—in part because of the choices we have made since then, in part from developments beyond our control. Even US military officials now concede that Iraq stands on the brink of civil war; most impartial experts say civil war has already begun. Iran—on which we depend for a significant fraction of the world's oil supply—is developing "weapons of mass destruction" that threaten to be quite real, unlike those in neighboring Iraq whose pursuit has cost us so dearly. North Korea, ruled by a madman, is testing missiles that might someday be capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to our West Coast. Nuclear proliferation continues to make deadly "dirty bomb" materials accessible to terrorists across the globe. Islamic extremism has spread like a cancer, with countless young fanatics bent on jihad and America in their crosshairs. The US military is spread wafer-thin.

No amount of patriotic chest-thumping, of the sort that felt so good in the awful wake of 9/11, can erase these facts. Waving the flag won't make these dangers go away. Putting a "Support Our Troops" bumper sticker on your car won't dissuade a single young jihadist from strapping a bomb to his chest. We can best support our troops and honor the sacrifices they've already made by being realistic about the world in which we ask them to serve.


When little Vivian Harvey delivered that stunning news on the playground so long ago, I could never have imagined the subsequent cataclysms of the 1960s that we would grow up in. The dominos that have fallen since the news of 9/11 have been even more unpredictable, the alterations in American life just as striking. In some ways, the similarity of the ensuing five years has been eerie: Much as in 1968, America finds itself mired in a foreign morass from which there seems no easy exit. Then as now, the pendulum of the nation's spirit has swung from united in the face of tragedy to bitterly divided.

There are no simple solutions to the challenges of making America safe, just as there is no magic that can bind our splintered national soul. If five years ago we rose as one to rally around the flag and declare that the terrorists would never defeat us, today that satisfying patriotic unity proves frustratingly elusive—and there are dark days when it seems the 9/11 terrorists have succeeded beyond their wildest jihad fantasies.

Just last month, officials announced that the crown of the Statue of Liberty, closed to tourists in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, would remain permanently off-limits. New Mexico Rep. Steve Pearce, who chairs the House subcommittee on the national parks, said he might hold hearings on the decision and stated, "While I respect the Park Service's justified concern for public safety, I am disappointed with their apparent decision to stop trying. Americans have a right to hear something better from their National Park Service than the implied message of this letter, which is 'never.'" New York Rep. Anthony Weiner called the closure "the final victory of the terrorists on Sept. 11."

Five years after Americans heard the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor, it's worth remembering, the war begun by that "day that shall live in infamy" was already won. Five years after the news that launched the "war on terror," we're closing the crown of the Statue of Liberty forever.


David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.

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