September 7, 2006 | The Philadelphia Inquirer

5 Years Later, More Needs to be Done

Most of us can remember exactly where we were nearly five years ago, on the morning of Sept. 11. I was in small-town America, where the guys in the local doughnut shop – watching the endless TV replay of the burning Twin Towers – were ready to get their shotguns and go to war.

Are Americans still willing to do that today? The flags that fluttered everywhere in the autumn of 2001 have long since thinned out. A weariness has crept deep into our political debate, in which it is widely assumed that, in taking this war to Afghanistan and Iraq, we have already done enough – or even too much.

From terrorist-sponsoring, bomb-building Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threatens the United States and our allies with annihilation. We wave back some U.N. documents and welcome to our shores former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, who is now road-tripping from Chicago to New York to Washington to Boston, telling Americans that we are to blame for triggering terrorism.

With congressional elections just ahead, President Bush delivers a series of speeches explaining in detail the menace of our deadliest enemies – and is accused by his critics of beating the tom-toms of war.

If anything, the president in recent years has not beaten those tom-toms enough. War drums are appropriate. So are flags, anthems, and threatening retorts to the likes of Ahmadinejad and Khatami. We are in a war. We have already been attacked at home on a massive scale. And whether we classify the enemy as an axis of evil or a web of Islamo-fascists and tyrannical affiliates, we face very real foes, who watch and learn from each other.

The paradox is that, in this war, we have done just enough so far to be in serious danger of becoming victims of our own success. Sept. 11 brought us in hideous close-up the landscape of war: the wreckage, burning and body count. Wisely, we took the fight abroad. With that, we have so far been spared further massive horrors in our own streets. Apart from the brave Americans who have served on the front lines, most of us have had no direct experience of this conflict.

And although we will be deluged in coming days with commemorations and footage of the attack that burst upon our Eastern Seaboard in 2001, most of us enjoy a level of ease that makes it hard to believe we are still seriously threatened.

Sure, we now surrender our hair gel at airports; we trade accusations about tactics in Iraq; we debate whether the New York Times should publish stories about terrorist surveillance; we titillate ourselves with news of Cindy Sheehan's plans to build herself a tree house near Bush's Crawford ranch.

We live with low-grade fear of the next big attack. But day to day, we relax into the false confidence that because one plot after another has been cracked, it may not happen here again.

Almost certainly, it will. In the long lull we have enjoyed, our political debate has been delivering such astounding falsehoods as the idea that it is beyond America's ability to take on Iran or fight North Korea. In terms of resources, that is dangerous nonsense, all too likely to encourage the next attack.

We forget how powerful America truly is, and what we can do if we must. We live in a country with a $12 trillion annual gross national product – more than 70 times the wealth generated yearly by Iran's politically oppressed oil patch.

Unlike the terror masters of the Middle East, we derive our riches not from oil wells monopolized by state thugs, but from the immense human potential nourished by a democratic system that lets us pursue almost any productive path our talents and ambitions might favor. In the war of ideas, we field the world's most powerful creed – if we are willing without apology to celebrate and defend it.

In taking this war to our enemies, to date, during the years of combat in Afghanistan, Iraq, and operations in a roster of less prominent spots including the Philippines, Djibouti, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan and Yemen, total American fatalities, according to the Department of Defense have numbered just under 3,000. We are right to honor and mourn every life sacrificed. But it is also important to recognize that this total is dwarfed by the numbers lost in wars fought by earlier generations to bequeath us the freedoms we enjoy today.

America did not cause the current conflict, and did not seek it. But whether we call it the War on Terror, the war against Islamo-fascists, World War III or World War IV, it is real and it is far from over. Sept. 11 is a day not only to mourn, but to remind our enemies – and ourselves – that we have just begun to fight.

Claudia Rosett is journalist in residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.

Issues:

Al Qaeda Iran