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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson.
As our nation marks a solemn Sunday to mark the 10th anniversary of the nation’s deadliest terrorist attacks, the question we ask today on our front page is, “Are we safer?”
Yet there’s another, more overarching question to be asked as we reflect on the past decade: What have we learned?
To answer that, we have to go back to the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, before the planes began crashing into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. It was a rather routine Tuesday in late summer as the sun rose. Headlines told of the usual political squabbles in Washington, the Chandra Levy case and Michael Jordan pondering a return to basketball.
The shock Americans felt when they learned we were under attack came from a sense of complacency years in the making. We had seen terror attacks before, in Lebanon in 1983, the Pan Am flight over Scotland in 1988, the WTC in 1993, two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 and the USS Cole attack in 2000. But each of those events were far away or limited in nature, targeting soldiers and sailors, not civilians.
Few among us imagined that someone could use hijacked airplanes to destroy buildings, not on the scale we saw unfold on our TVs that day. It was a punch to the gut we were unprepared for, and it left us dazed and disoriented.
That feeling continued for some time as the nation sat wounded and lethargic. Flights were grounded, financial markets closed, public events canceled and our usual entertainment distractions put on hold.
The 9/11 attacks are compared to two other events that marked a shift in history: The attacks on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, which brought a distant war to our shores; and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, when our postwar innocence was cut down by a bullet.
Like those events, the 2001 attacks drove home key points we either denied or were unaware of: Well-organized, well-funded forces were at work to undermine our way of life; these enemies do not wear uniforms or carry flags and are willing to die for their cause; and that turning the other cheek or offering a limited military response would not ensure our future safety.
In short, we learned that a dangerous world was full of evil zealots who believed us to be vulnerable and too weak to strike back.
But they have learned something about Americans, as have we. Though we staggered from the blow, we got back up. And we proved to the world that we are a resilient people despite the changes we’ve undergone.
After 9/11, the United States didn’t roll over. A month later, U.S. forces struck at the Taliban in Afghanistan, the regime supporting the al-Qaida terrorists who attacked us. It took us almost a decade to get Osama bin Laden, but we kept him imprisoned in his own caves and compound until we finally executed him in May.
In early 2003, we attacked forces in Iraq and deposed Saddam Hussein under the belief that he was supporting al-Qaida. Those wars have cost billions of dollars and thousands of lives, and their success is a source of debate among analysts and historians. But there’s no denying the message that was sent: Attacks on U.S. soil will not go unanswered.
As in 1941, we suited up to engage in a war already raging without us. Then, it took only four years for our military to dismantle a Nazi war machine built over more than a decade. This time, we’ve torn apart a terrorist structure that had been growing for a generation.
We also learned much about our own resolve and resilience. Despite the changes we’ve undertaken since 2001 to ward off similar attacks, American life continues. Granted, we have endured increased security on airlines and public events, plus new laws to expand the government’s police powers, increase surveillance and better “connect the dots” to thwart future attacks.
Because our civil liberties have been bent at times to accommodate the new threat, some opine that the terrorists have won by making us change our way of life and amend our freedoms.
But compare those inconveniences to the rationing, shortages and individual sacrifices we undertook during World War II to contribute to the war effort. And compare it now to changes in the lives of bin Laden, Saddam and other terrorist leaders and supporters. They are dead, imprisoned or on the run; we merely have our bags searched outside ballparks and take off our shoes in airports. The terrorists aimed to accomplish much more, and may have come to realize how they underestimated us.
The zealots who planned and carried out the attacks sought to bring down our way of life. Yet a decade later, the seeds of democratic freedoms have been planted in their homeland in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Egypt and Libya, and are gradually bringing down the kind of oppressive societies leaders like bin Laden want to impose on the world.
Based on that, who do we think is winning this war?
Ten years later, we are a wiser people, more aware of dangers and more appreciative of our freedoms. And we now know we can take a major punch and return that blow tenfold.
We have learned that we live in a dangerous world, but also that we are equal to the task of making it better, safer and more free.
That is the lesson learned from 9/11.