Since 9/11

Anniversaries compel us to take stock, to assess progress, to measure change. On a clear September day five years ago, 19 hijackers plowed three passenger jets into the symbolic heart of America's economic and military power in New York and Washington. On a fourth hijacked plane, a group of ordinary citizens, informed about the fate of the other jets, defied the apocalyptic vision of their captors. They fought for control of the plane in what might best be described as an extraordinary act of homeland security. The airliner crashed in a field in rural Pennsylvania, ending the most astonishing attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor.

Before the rubble was cleared in lower Manhattan and at the Pentagon, military planners marshaled forces to rout Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorist network from Afghanistan-an enemy without tanks or spy satellites or fighter aircraft, or even a nation of its own. Then envelopes containing anthrax mailed through the postal system emerged as another new weapon in a strange post-Cold War world. Bush administration officials soon began sounding the alarm about Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, a brutal despot with nuclear ambitions and a history of chemical warfare.

Al Qaeda's attacks spawned a world few imagined on Sept. 10, 2001. The administration declared a war on terror and went on the offensive in Afghanistan and later, Iraq. Congress and the White House reorganized 22 federal agencies into a new Department of Homeland Security and began funneling billions of dollars to U.S. contractors. The administration restructured the intelligence apparatus and expanded its authority. And national security was redefined to include new mandates, from reinforcing cockpit doors to fingerprinting foreign visitors to rebuilding Iraq.

Many of us experience this new security regime in lines at airports, when we enter federal buildings or cross U.S. borders. Much of official Washington now sits barricaded. The steps of the Capitol building, from which visitors could once behold Pierre L'Enfant's vision of a great city, are off limits to the public. We speak a new language in which weapons of mass destruction and improvised explosive devices have become fodder for dinner-table conversation.

The 9/11 commission investigation into the events of Sept. 11 estimated that Osama bin Laden spent no more than half a million dollars on the attacks. In contrast, the United States has spent more than $430 billion in response, according to separate cost analyses by three nonpartisan groups. The money has gone for waging war in Afghanistan and Iraq, restoring infrastructure in those nations, restructuring federal operations and boosting security at home.

Are we safer? There have been no further attacks in the United States. But Osama bin Laden remains at large and free enough to have released two dozen recorded messages since President Bush pledged to bring him to justice. The anthrax attacks remain unsolved. Iraq has lurched from a dictatorship ruled by a madman to a violent democracy that consumes the lives of Americans and Iraqis. Six thousand National Guard troops now patrol our southern border. And in August, authorities foiled an alleged plot by British citizens of Pakistani descent to blow up multiple airliners en route to the United States.

Security is like intelligence-success is hard to see, but failure becomes all too clear.

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