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Is America Safer Four Years After September 11th?


In last year’s national radio address marking the third anniversary of the September 11th attacks, President Bush assured Americans that pursuing the war on terror would make the country more secure. “The United States of America is determined to guard our homeland against future attacks. Our country is safer than we were three years ago, but we are not yet safe.”

The U.S. Homeland May be Safer

As Americans prepare to reflect on the fourth anniversary of the most devastating terrorist attack on U.S. soil, many continue to ask: ‘Are we safer?’ Security analyst Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution says close to home, the answer is yes. “I think on balance, we are safer against a September 11th-like spectacular attack. The ability of al-Qaida to carry out that kind of major casualty attack has probably diminished. I think al-Qaida is on the run in terms of its old vertical capacity. In other words, it has been largely incapacitated.”

University of Texas historian H.W. Brands agrees that the United States is safer for the simple reason that Americans are more alert of the dangers they face. “I think the major contributor to an increased level of safety is a general awareness on the part of the American people and governmental institutions. This increased level of vigilance probably makes it more difficult for terrorists to attack the United States than was the case four years ago.”

But The World is More Dangerous

But most analysts point out that the number of terrorist attacks around the globe has increased. Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution says that while the United States may be safer, the rest of the world isn't. “This does not mean that we're winning the long term war on terror because, of course, we have to fear large numbers of jihadists who seem to be as numerous as ever and as deadly as ever in other countries where the truck bomb remains a frequent tool of use -- not just in Iraq, but also in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and elsewhere. Not to mention the London attacks this year and the Madrid attacks last year.”

Mr. O'Hanlon says many of these bombings were carried out by al-Qaida splinter organizations that have created a broad nebulous terrorist movement.

Iraq Conflict Changed Tenor of the War on Terror

Most scholars say much of the world community initially supported the U.S.-led war on terror sparked by the September 11th attacks. Ralf Hoppe is a senior editor of Europe's most widely read political newsmagazine Der Spiegel and co-author of the book: Inside 9-11, What Really Happened. He says much of Europe backed the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan that captured or killed much of the al-Qaida leadership. “But the Iraq War had many other possible reasons beside September 11th. People, especially Europeans, still don't understand it fully. But they have a feeling that the Iraq War was not only because of September 11th.”

Most scholars agree that international skepticism over the Iraq War strained relations between the United States and many countries, but they are divided over the impact it has had on American efforts in fighting the war on terror.

Retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General William Odom is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute here in Washington. He says the war in Iraq has left the United States more vulnerable. “Strategically, overall, I think the United States is in the least safe position it has been in since the Second World War. As a result of President Bush's insistence on going into war in Iraq, our allies chilled relations with us. That has continued ever since. The loss of allies threatens our entire international system, which the United States built up during the Cold War. Our basic system of generating wealth and military power, protecting individual rights and spreading constitutional governments depends on those relationships.”

General Odom says that without strong allies, the United States will not have the cooperation necessary to fight the war on terror. But the Brookings Institution's Michael O'Hanon says that America has not lost its allies. “We need to avoid conflating the disagreement the world has had over Iraq. Countries are practical and they cooperate when they know they are facing a common threat. Most western countries, most moderate Muslim countries and most other countries around the world have a common interest in opposing terror.”

Mr. O'Hanlon says that common threat was brought to light on September 11th and has been re-enforced by numerous terrorist attacks around the world since then.

'Patriot Day'

In 2002, President Bush declared the September 11th anniversary as "Patriot Day" -- a day when the nation should remember and honor the thousands who perished in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

Historian H.W. Brands of the University of Texas says future generations may view September 11th, 2001 as a major turning point for the United States. But he adds that it may not be like other memorial holidays such as December 7th when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor during the Second World War. “It will be a day when Americans recognize that we live in a dangerous world and probably always will. It is worthwhile remembering that Pearl Harbor Day was not commemorated in any particularly way until after the United States won the war against Japan. But there is no one who is going to surrender in a war on terror. I just don't see that kind of commemoration because there is no way we can walk away from September 11th feeling like that was a job well-done, that we have gotten back at those people that attacked us.”

Professor H.W. Brands adds it will be difficult to ever claim victory in the war on terror. And most analysts agree that while Americans are more vigilant than they were before September 11th, the threat of more attacks, both at home and abroad, remain formidable.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, “VOA News Now.” For other "Focus" reports, click here

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