Saturday, July 18, 2009

Are we safer now than we were immediately after 9/11, or have we just been lucky?

This is a piece I originally published on in 2007. It continues to be the most highly-ranked Helium article on this topic, so it may be worth re-publishing here even if circumstances have changed considerably in the past 1 1/2 years.

America is not safer today than it was immediately following the attacks of September 11th. While many Americans, as well as certain branches of America's government, may be more aware of security than they previously were, the steps our nation has taken during the past 6 years [now 7+ -ed] have set the stage for long-term security threats to America and its citizens at home and abroad.

Relative safety must be examined in terms of both our efficacy in defending against a security threat, and the existence of such threats.

Following the first Gulf War of 1991, the security threat to America increased greatly. While the threat was understood at high levels of government, America's ability to mount an effective defense was hampered by partisan bickering, bureaucratic red-tape, and frankly, near total disinterest in the topic by the American population at-large.

Simultaneously, anti-American and anti-Western sentiments grew pervasively, enabling Islamic fundamentalists to make easy inroads among poor, disaffected Muslim youth-especially in the Middle East, South Asia and Britain.

In 1993, when the World Trade Center was first bombed, Americans missed a critical opportunity to improve their security situation, either by improving actual defense, or by learning about the nature and origin of the threat, and perhaps acting strategically to decrease those threats.

By the time the events of 9/11 unfolded, 10 years had passed during which America had hardly defended against the security threat, and the existence of threats had greatly increased. Following that tragic day, the tendency of Americans to wonder "Why us?" underscored how dangerous the situation had become. Most Americans seemed to have completely forgotten the original WTC bombing, and to be woefully unaware of the atmosphere that had been developing outside the U.S. for many years.

Since 9/11, America has done much to ramp up domestic security and keep physical threats at bay. Although some of these efforts have arguably weakened core aspects of American democracy, they have likely helped to stop potential attacks on American soil. Substantive proof, however, is lacking, since the government has declined or refused to divulge almost any salient details of foiled plots.

During the same time, anti-American sentiment spread swiftly following the second Gulf War. The massive outpouring of global support for America in the wake of 9/11, and the near universal support for America's military campaign in Afghanistan, were squandered terribly as the U.S. became inextricably tangled in the Iraq debacle-a conflict for which there is virtually no remaining support, either domestically or in other nations.

It is this unparalleled dislike-even hatred-of America that is the greatest threat to our safety. America cannot realistically surround itself with a wall. Nor can it purge those within its borders, be they citizens or not, who wish harm to Americans.

The only real way for Americans to enjoy long-term freedom and security is to seek to understand, and then to strategically reduce and eliminate, the causes of anti-Americanism.

Unfortunately for Americans, it has been impossible to make progress in this direction, and for this, we have only ourselves to blame. Because influential members of the government and the media insist on presenting this approach in the context of a moral judgment on America, it is impossible to get down to the business of strategy. But strategic management of America's image has nothing to do with whether one agrees or disagrees with terrorists and extremists. In fact, it is absurd even to give such people a footing for dialog. But it is a terrible shame, and a failure of our innovative national spirit, that we cannot manage to craft a strategy that increases our critical understanding of the world beyond America, and improves the international standing of America to its former high level.

Until now, we have been lucky to escape another attack of mass-destruction. But experts seem to agree that it is a matter of "when," and not "if," another attack will occur. Luck eventually runs out.

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