On anniversary of 9/11, U.S. must battle shifting terrorism tactics

Ryan McGowan has a tattoo with 9/11 in Roman numerals on the back of her neck in honor of her mother, investment executive Stacey Sennas McGowan. She was killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
Ryan McGowan has a tattoo with 9/11 in Roman numerals on the back of her neck in honor of her mother, investment executive Stacey Sennas McGowan. She was killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. The Associated Press

The 15th anniversary today of the 9/11 terrorist attacks is an opportunity for reflection, gratitude and angst. It’s also a time for our nation’s leaders to recommit themselves to preparing thoroughly for an uncertain, dangerous future.

But first it’s a day to remember with thankfulness the lives of the nearly 3,000 people murdered by the 19 al-Qaida terrorists who hijacked four commercial airliners and used them (or tried to) as guided missiles. Their misguided goal that day was to make some (mostly incomprehensible) point about how evil America is and how magnificent and desirable the terrorists’ extremist, violent, putrefied version of Islam was.

Across both America and the world, families who lost members to this vile ideology — whether airline passengers, workers in targeted buildings or first responders — continue to find ways to honor their loved ones while accommodating themselves to life without them.

It’s necessary to retell the 9/11 story because America now has high school students who weren’t even born when those hijacked planes explosively crashed in New York; Washington, D.C.; and Pennsylvania.

Those young students should know that they live in a country that’s safer today, though to make it so has cost billions of dollars. Sadly, some of that money was wasted on approaches that didn’t work, such as the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on bio-tech detectors that could sense very little, and what they could detect couldn’t be verified in time to save anyone.

As journalist Steven Brill persuasively argued in a recent cover story in The Atlantic, “we’re safer from the kind of orchestrated attack that shocked us on that September morning. It’s harder for terrorists to get into the country and harder for them to pull off something spectacular if they do. But we have not plugged some of the most threatening security gaps. Worse, as the Orlando massacre reminded us, the world has become more populated by those who want to exploit those gaps, including those living among us — and who, in the United States, can easily obtain military-grade weapons. They are not deterred by the prospect of their own death and they are happy to commit acts less ambitious than those of 9/11. That makes their attacks much harder to detect in advance. Our defenses are far stronger, but what we have to defend against has outpaced our progress.”

One reason Americans may not feel safer now, as Brill suggests, is that terrorism has moved from attacks by big organizations such as al-Qaida to lone-wolf violence attempted by hostile people who sit sullenly in their basements and get self-radicalized online by watching sickening videos from the Islamic State and other perverse groups that have distorted traditional Islam into Islamism. (Islamism is to Islam what the Ku Klux Klan is to Christianity.)

The bizarrely powerful attraction that jihadist Islamism continues to have will require a steady, wise approach from our next president. For one thing, the U.S. will need widespread international cooperation — and not just from predominantly Muslim nations (a majority of the 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia).

There must be intelligence coordination and a shared commitment to protect all people vulnerable to the luminescent hatred of the Islamic State, Boko Haram, al-Qaida and other extremist organizations bent on destroying not just Western civilization but civilization in general.

These challenges reveal why it’s dangerous for Americans to invest in Donald Trump’s shoot-from-the-lip, xenophobic, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant foreign policy. Instead, the nation must be more vigilant and discerning about matters of security and foreign relations if it is to stay ahead of those who wish to kill Americans.

A decade and a half after the initial shock of 9/11, our lives are different. We take off our shoes in long airport security lines. We have combined many federal agencies into the behemoth Department of Homeland Security. We hold our breath for news about the next terrorist outrage in Paris; San Bernardino, Calif.; Baghdad; or Orlando, Fla. And in some odd way we pine for the days when hijackers just wanted to get to Cuba or draw attention to the cause of Palestinians.

The truth is we can’t return to the 9/10 era. We live now in the 9/12 age, and it requires of us both constant vigilance and effective ways to support traditional Muslims as they struggle for the very soul of Islam. There seems little doubt about the outcome.

Hatred and outrage finally will exhaust themselves, and the ascendant forces of community and civilization will prevail. Nothing about the road ahead will be easy. But Americans know they must repel malignant hatred and stand strongly for the values of freedom and individual worth that have undergirded the idea of America from the beginning.

Those are worthwhile goals for Americans today on this somber anniversary.