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We’ve learned little from Sept. 11

Kevin O'Brien The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer

If you missed the National Geographic Channel’s presentation of “Inside 9/11” this week, you missed a chance to clear up any confusion about our enemies and their character.

Fortunately, you have a second chance; the program is to air again on Sept. 8.

The program – two segments of two hours each – is a remarkably succinct and clear-eyed chronicle of the events that led up to the worst terrorist attack this country has ever seen, the attack itself and the aftermath.

Interviews with World Trade Center and Pentagon survivors, family members of those who died and intelligence analysts tell the story from numerous perspectives simultaneously. Recordings of the voices of flight attendants, ground controllers, people trapped above the WTC fires, firemen trying to reach them from below, and even the hijackers themselves humanize the horror in a way that is simply riveting.

For me, it brought back memories of that day, that week, that time in our lives when we Americans suddenly realized how very unsafe we really were.

And on that point, very little really has changed. Our borders are still ridiculously porous, our ports remain frighteningly insecure, our intelligence agencies are still largely uncoordinated, our efforts to identify and track the people who threaten us most are still hampered by political correctness, our Justice Department is doing without several top officials because of myopic senatorial partisanship, our troops in the field are neither as numerous nor as well equipped as they should be, and our desire to hide under the covers in hopes that we’ll be left alone is once again beginning to overpower our sense of urgency to defend ourselves.

Not even four years ago, we watched in horror as 3,000 Americans – our countrymen – perished at the hands of maniacs who thought themselves martyrs rather than the murderers they truly were.

We saw office workers leap 100 stories because the only other choice was burning to death.

We saw New York City firemen hurry up the stairwells of the World Trade Center because they saw it as their duty, even if doing their duty meant giving up their own lives. And hundreds of them did give their lives.

We heard of the struggle of courageous passengers aboard one of the hijacked airliners, who chose not to go meekly to a fate that undoubtedly would have meant even more death and destruction. Instead, they fought their captors and forced the plane down into a Pennsylvania meadow.

The commentators said then that Osama bin Laden had gotten at least one of his wishes: America would never be the same again – that the country, as we knew it, might never fully recover.

They couldn’t have been more wrong. Not even four years later, America is the same place it was – prosperous, self-absorbed, all caught up in partisan histrionics.

We’ve recovered, all right. And what we’ve recovered most completely is our smugness.

I marvel at the people on the left who say we’re provoking militant Islam by acting against it in Iraq. I marvel at those who say that Britain’s new rules cracking down on the jihad-mongers will somehow “make things worse.”

I marvel just as much at the people on the right who say the war in Iraq is “working” because there hasn’t been a terrorist attack here since it began. That will be true right up until the day when it’s no longer true.

No matter how well the war in Iraq “works” – and I would venture to say it’s going better than the coverage in the mainstream media would have you believe – it hardly inoculates America against further terrorist attacks.

In fact, nothing will make us terrorist-proof, but it sure seems as if we ought to be making life more difficult for our enemies in places other than Iraq.

We can start here by addressing our wide-open borders. Illegal immigration has long been a nuisance; now those well-worn trails out of Mexico represent a clear menace to national security.

We ought to stop acting as if 70-year-old women of Scandinavian descent are as great a potential threat as young Middle Eastern men. It may be inhospitable to profile, but those who are inconvenienced will survive. And that’s more than you can say about people unlucky enough to become the targets of undetected terrorists.

We are in a war. It’s a war that has been reaching out and grabbing us for nearly 30 years, but it just can’t quite get our full attention. We keep shrugging it off and rolling over.

I shudder to think of what it will take to actually rouse us, because I know they’re going to shake us again.

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