As we reflect on the past decade after the coordinated acts of terrorism in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, Americans should ask themselves a critical question: what do we need to do going forward?
First and foremost, we need to continue to aggressively pursue and eliminate terrorists no matter how long it takes to find them. Like the Palestinian terrorists who murdered the Israeli athletes and coaches at the 1972 Munich Olympics who were themselves hunted down one by one by the Mossad, al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders, including Osama bin Laden, have been similarly hunted down and eliminated one by one — leaving the terror group a shadow of its former self. The message is the same then and now: you can run but you cannot hide from the consequences of the destruction that you have wrought.
The cost of protecting America and our fellow citizens has been very high — both in terms of the financial investments in our security and the erosion of our civil liberties. And the human cost of protecting the country has not been shared equitably among all of our citizens. We have been fighting two wars overseas for nearly a decade but Americans back home have been living normal lives with little sacrifice. As a result, far fewer Americans have shouldered the significant burden of protecting our country — with many paying the ultimate price — than during World War II, the Korean War or the Vietnam War. Keeping our country safe is an intergenerational project and there needs to be a renewed commitment on the part of the next generation of Americans to apply the lessons learned in the decade since Sept. 11, 2001 and not only maintain but improve our security while at the same time preserve our democratic way of life.
Ten years ago on the night of 9/11, I wrote a short piece that appeared in the next morning’s News. I noted that counterterrorism is similar to being a hockey goalie — even the best goalies will miss an incoming puck at some point. But as terrorists adapted their tactics, we overhauled our strategy and responded aggressively by taking the fight to the terrorists’ safe havens. We have scored notable victories — the operation against bin Laden himself in May most recently — as well as tragic losses — the Taliban shot down a U.S. helicopter in August, killing some 30 American troops. Since 9/11, there have been numerous attempted terrorist attacks against the U.S. homeland but all of them have been successfully thwarted. This achievement is no accident. It is the result of the considerable investments that we have made into our security arrangements and, most critically, the dedication and professionalism of the members of our intelligence, national security, and law enforcement agencies who risk their lives every day to protect their fellow Americans.
Will the so-called “War on Terror” end? Regrettably, not for the foreseeable future. Even though our military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan will be greatly diminished over the next few years, the reality is that the United States will need to work hand-in-hand with partner countries to closely monitor and act decisively against terror groups that emerge around the world. While it is important to address economic, political and social inequities and the “root causes” of terrorism, it is equally important to create the strongest disincentives possible for any disgruntled group to turn to violence for political gain.
There is no doubt that the U.S. and its allies will continue to face existing threats such as car bombings and weapons of mass destruction as well as new threats such as cyberterrorism. And the recently reported disappearance of hundreds of Russian-made SA-24 “Manpads” (man-portable air defense system) shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, capable of shooting down civilian airlines taking off or landing, amidst the collapse of the Libyan regime means that the variety of threats will continue to grow and efforts to protect our nation and our allies will need to be increased. Even in the present environment of fiscal austerity, the cost of our national and homeland security will continue to be high and will most likely continue to increase. These necessary investments will need to be carefully scrutinized to ensure that the resources we allocate to our security are wise and prudent expenditures but ultimately the security and well-being of our country in particular and the international state system generally are at stake.
The decade-old reality for Americans, however, remains the same: there continues to be significant threats to the United States and its allies both at home and abroad and that if we are to maintain any semblance of our democratic way of life, we will need to be even more proactive and aggressive in defeating terrorists wherever they are operating.
Right now, complacency at home is our biggest enemy. Every citizen needs to take responsibility for our collective security and stay alert. The terrorists win if they are successful in creating chaos and getting us to turn against each other. We need to stay vigilant regarding the growing potential threats against us and our continued security and safety will depend on the next generation of American leaders, working with the next generation of leaders from other nations, maintaining our commitment to fight global terrorism and extremism while at the same time finding the most appropriate balance between security and civil liberties.
Minh Luong is Assistant Director of International Security Studies.