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The Spirit of September 12

WASHINGTON, DC – The terrorist attacks on the United States ten years ago provoked a powerful reaction: the dispatch of American troops, first to Afghanistan and then to Iraq, and the creation of a sprawling new federal agency, the Department of Homeland Security, to coordinate and supervise measures and programs aimed at protecting the US from further assaults. This expensive, intensive effort – known as the “global war on terror” – can be counted as a success, a diversion, and an example.

The most important fact about the last decade is that, since 9/11, there has been no successful foreign terrorist attack in the US. For that, US government efforts deserve credit. No doubt a good deal of the money spent to make the US safe has been wasted. And the group that launched the initial attacks, Al Qaeda, never posed the kind of massive threat that America’s great Cold War adversary, the Soviet Union, once did.

Still, it was clear in the wake of September 11 that a small number of people, motivated by a radical form of Islam, was determined to inflict as much harm on America and Americans as they could. Had they managed even a few more attacks similar to the ones on New York and Washington, they could have done serious damage. At worst, the US might have become a more closed, suspicious country, retreating from the openness that has been its hallmark.

Fortunately, they failed, surely in part because the American government, in cooperation with other governments, worked hard to thwart them, killing and capturing some and discouraging others. In terms both of money and bureaucratic procedures – carefully scrutinizing all airline passengers, for example – Americans may have overpaid for a decade of avoiding terrorist attacks. But overpaying was far preferable to suffering more attacks.