The legacy of 9/11

The most obvious question to ask on the fifth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon is: Are we safer now than we were then? Then we might also ask: Are we as safe as we could be?

Yes, we are safer now—mostly because we’re so much more aware of the intentions and capabilities of those who seek to terrorize us. Our intelligence services are paying more attention and working more cooperatively with their peers in other countries, with some success. If we were as alert on 9/11 as we are today, the plot probably wouldn’t have succeeded.

Are we as safe as we could be? Unfortunately, no. The invasion and occupation of Iraq have drained the resources that could have gone into more effective security measures. Our ports, chemical plants, nuclear-power plants and airports remain vulnerable, our borders are porous, and our domestic police and intelligence services have not gotten the funding they need to ferret out potential terrorists in our midst.

And, as Hurricane Katrina showed, the nation’s ability to respond to a disaster, natural or otherwise, is no better than it was on 9/11.

Making America safe from terrorists does not require abandoning our constitutional rights or condoning torture or exploiting people’s fears, as the Bush administration seems to believe. Nor can it be done militarily, as we’re learning in Iraq. What it requires, along with continued vigilance and hopeful courage, is high-quality, fully funded police and intelligence work along with new systems for protecting vulnerable industries and sites. Some progress has been made, but there’s much more to do.