How Effective Was Sept. 11 Response?

Gunnery Sgt. Gregory Schaff, 43, mans a grenade machine gun in a Marine convoy in Afghanistan. i i

Gunnery Sgt. Gregory Schaff, 43, mans a grenade machine gun in a Marine convoy in Afghanistan, during Operation Enduring Freedom, Dec. 3, 2001. U.S. Navy Photo by David C. Mercil/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption U.S. Navy Photo by David C. Mercil/Getty Images
Gunnery Sgt. Gregory Schaff, 43, mans a grenade machine gun in a Marine convoy in Afghanistan.

Gunnery Sgt. Gregory Schaff, 43, mans a grenade machine gun in a Marine convoy in Afghanistan, during Operation Enduring Freedom, Dec. 3, 2001.

U.S. Navy Photo by David C. Mercil/Getty Images

The approaching fifth anniversary of Sept.11, 2001, has much of the world holding its breath. The question many are asking is: Will there be another attack timed to coincide with the anniversary?

But there is another question we should all be asking: After five years, what have we accomplished by way of our response?

We have of course seen many responses to 9/11, including wars with all their horrors, errors and costs. We have seen governments overthrown overseas, new laws enacted and new bureaucracies created at home. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent. At least some of these undertakings have had value. And some may have been of general benefit, including those intended to detect or deter another attack.

But have we responded in such a way as to make another attack less likely?

Most of us believe that the measures taken to safeguard air travel since 9/11 have mattered, although it is hard to know exactly how much. This month's disruption of an alleged plot in Britain to blow up U.S.-bound airliners seems to be evidence that increased vigilance pays off. But there remains the chilling possibility that the plot could have worked, despite all our security efforts.

Down deep, we all suspect that a determined terrorist cell will always be able to find some way to imperil a great number of people. So long as the geopolitical stage remains set for such acts, there will be a ready supply of actors.

So real progress against terrorism requires changes on that grander stage. And in this, we have seen scant progress. In fact, many argue that the geopolitical changes wrought since 9/11 have not made us safer but less so.

On one level, this is a debate between those who wanted swift and terrible retribution for 9/11 and those who would have preferred a slower, more judicial and ultimately multinational response to the crime. But even if you assume that only a military eye-for-an-eye makes for justice, the American execution of that justice has proven far from satisfying.

Al-Qaida survives, in some form, to bedevil our days, if only in our imaginations. Osama bin Laden lives, if only on fresh videotapes. Afghanistan, once liberated, slides backward toward the Taliban. Iraq, once liberated, descends into civil war, and we can neither pick sides nor find an honorable exit.

Iran and North Korea see our Iraqi predicament and exploit it. Hezbollah and Hamas see the same moment as an opportunity to bait the Israelis and gain stature in the wider Muslim world.

And through it all we wonder how many terrorist cells are forming somewhere out there, cells with members who were not even teenagers yet on Sept. 11, 2001.

What might we have accomplished in the last five years?

On Dec. 7, 1946 the United States marked the fifth anniversary of Pearl Harbor, a cataclysmic attack to which 9/11 has often been compared. But by the time Pearl Harbor had been history for half a decade, another sneak attack on the United States by Japan was quite unthinkable. Indeed, the thought of any foreign power catching the United States off guard on its own soil was unthinkable.

By 1946, five years after Pearl Harbor, the United States had entered and won World War II, leading a worldwide array of allies to total victory over the Axis powers of Germany, Japan and Italy. Strong democracies would grow in all three of those defeated powers. Germany and Japan would make their new economies the envy of the world. Americans, and their government, were pivotal in all this. And the accomplishments of just five years were phenomenal.

Of course the challenges posed by the Axis of that era were quite different from those posed by the latter-day Axis of Evil, as designated by President Bush in 2002 (Iran, Iraq and North Korea). But would anyone seriously describe them as less daunting?

What was different then was not the magnitude of the threat but the nature of the response. The American reaction to Pearl Harbor was one of national shared commitment. Millions volunteered to serve, in uniform or in support. Everyone was assumed to be part of the "war effort," and everything was subordinated to it. There was a draft. Everything from food to gasoline was rationed. Luxuries were all but unobtainable. Taxes soared, wages and prices were controlled and corporate behavior was closely regulated.

Does this sound like America in 2006? Or in any of the past five years? In responding to 9/11, we have seen nothing like this mobilization and broad sacrifice. Compared to 60 years ago, only our rhetoric has been in scale.

Ron Elving co-hosts It's All Politics, a weekly podcast, with NPR Political Editor Ken Rudin.

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