New York — "We’ll never be safe again, will we?" the young woman asked — posing a question on the minds of many Americans as we mark the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. She was seated across the aisle on a flight to Washington. I guessed she might be in her late 20s — about the age of some of my own children. She had been ahead of me as we passed through the TSA security checkpoint at JFK and had received the "full treatment" — bags searched, explosives residue check, shoes twice through the X-ray, the "beeping wand," a pat-down, the works.
"Why do you say that?" I asked — dodging her question with one of my own. It’s an old talk-radio trick. When you don’t have an answer — ask a question. She had surrendered her lipgloss, hand cream, hair spray, perfume, a small tube of toothpaste and good bit of her portable personal privacy at the security checkpoint.
She shrugged and said, "there are just too many threats. Now it’s liquids. What’s next? Do you think we’ll ever be safe?"
During the next hour or so on the flight to Washington we talked about whether Americans can ever feel safe again. She rarely flies. I fly somewhere almost every week — and average more than a dozen flights a month.
For her, the horrible images of hijacked jetliners crashing into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a farmer’s field in Pennsylvania are a portent of more terror to come. For me, the attack is a rallying cry for Americans to fight back.
She believes Iraq and Afghanistan are inciting more attacks. I’m convinced that democratic outcomes in these places are both achievable — and essential.
My traveling companion thinks that George W. Bush should be more conciliatory. I often think he should be more forceful — particularly with the opposition here at home — for it is here, not on foreign battlefields, that this war will be won or lost.
I hope the young woman across the aircraft aisle — and other anxious Americans — have been listening carefully to President Bush these last few days, for in his remarks he answers her question: "Can we be safe again?" And this time he’s not pulling his punches.
"Five years after our nation was attacked, the terrorist danger remains. We’re a nation at war — and America and her allies are fighting this war with relentless determination across the world," he told the Military Officer’s Association of America (MOAA) on Tuesday. Though the organization has frequently been critical of the administration’s defense policies, the commander in chief observed that "we’ve removed terrorist sanctuaries, disrupted their finances, killed and captured key operatives, broken up terrorist cells in America and other nations and stopped new attacks before they’re carried out. We’re on the offense against the terrorists on every battle front and we’ll accept nothing less than complete victory."
The MOAA gave Bush a standing ovation. Leading Democrats responded by demanding that Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld resign. So much for the "loyal opposition."
A day later, Bush again reminded allies and adversaries about the nature of our enemy. "The terrorists who declared war on America represent no nation, they defend no territory and they wear no uniform," he said. "They do not mass armies on borders, or flotillas of warships on the high seas. They operate in the shadows of society; they send small teams of operatives to infiltrate free nations; they live quietly among their victims; they conspire in secret, and then they strike without warning."
Then, in remarkably frank language, the president described the effectiveness of "tough" but legal "alternative interrogation procedures" used to elicit information regarding past and planned terrorist attacks from detainees. "In this new war," he said, "the most important source of information on where terrorists are hiding and what they are planning is the terrorists themselves. Captured terrorists have unique knowledge about how terrorist networks operate … of where their operatives are deployed, and knowledge about what plots are underway … To win the war on terror, we must be able to detain, question, and, when appropriate, prosecute terrorists captured here in America, and on the battlefields around the world."
Noting that "for the sake of our security, Congress needs to act," Bush proffered legislation to protect CIA and U.S. military interrogators from legal retribution and provide for congressionally approved military tribunals to try terror suspects.
And therein is the answer to the question "will we ever be safe again?" It all depends. It depends on whether this Congress votes to allow some of the most vicious people on the planet to be tried by military tribunals. It depends on whether the Congress we elect in November is willing to finish what was started in Iraq. It depends on NATO’s resolve in Afghanistan. It depends on whether we stand up to Iranian nuclear blackmail. It depends on whether reasonable Muslims are willing to face down the Islamo-fascists.
Is all that too much to expect? It all depends.