Are we safer? That is the inevitable question being asked 15 years and a trillion dollars spent in the name of national security after 9/11, the most devastating foreign attack ever on American soil.
Yes. Of course we are safer.
The Freedom Tower rising over what was once rubble signals not only the reshaping of New York's skyline but the nation's security and psychological contours as well.
In a cover article in the Atlantic, Steven Brill outlines the extraordinary progress and extravagant failures of America's 15-year effort to ensure that terrorists will never again be able to inflict such carnage.
Though gaping security gaps remain, Brill writes, Americans are far safer from the kind of orchestrated strike 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," he argues.
New security touches every aspect of our lives. TSA officials at airports screen us and our luggage. Bio-sensors sniff our air and radiological detectors monitor our ports and major railway stations. Cameras capture ordinary, and extraordinary, movement in New York and other cities. New commercial buildings are designed with security in mind.
In Washington, the national security bureaucracy has been transformed. A single division in the Justice Department is now charged with consolidating and toughening counterterrorism litigation and decisions.
Our 16 intelligence agencies are now overseen by a single department and many barriers to information sharing have come down.
The FBI's budget has nearly tripled; its mission has shifted from prosecuting terrorists after they strike to preventing them from striking.
Before 9/11, FBI director James Comey told Brill, fewer than a quarter of the now more than 13,700 special agents were assigned to national security. Today, it's about half.
Terrorism is now a major focus of academe. Whereas before 2001 only a handful of journalists and scholars at colleges and think-tanks worried about militant Islamists and terrorist threats, counter-terrorism today has become a virtual industry.
Some of the most dramatic transformation has occurred, understandably, in New York. Since 9/11, the NYPD has created the nation's premier counter-terrorism division – over 1,200 cops and analysts strong. Some 16 terrorist plots of varying degrees of sophistication have been thwarted.
John Miller, the NYPD's deputy commissioner for intelligence and counter-terrorism, who as a journalist in 1998 heard Usama bin Laden warn of a "black day for America," observed at a terrorism conference in New York last April that while terrorists have managed to conduct individual strikes -- in Boston, Fort Hood, San Bernardino, and Orlando, for instance -- there have been no more mass attacks like 9/11. "We've put together a global apparatus to fight terror," Miller said. "We've gotten a lot right."
Perhaps the most telling indication that Americans have psychologically shifted from 9/11 can be found on college campuses. While many post-9/11 students abandoned their studies to join the military, CIA, and other agencies to protect the nation from terror, students at colleges today fret more about "micro-aggressions," "trigger warnings" and blocking politically incorrect speakers from lecturing. The search for "safe spaces" means something very different today than what it did in those sorrowful days after September 11.
Paradoxically, President George W. Bush, who urged us all to get on with our lives and go shopping, has prevailed. Our malls are filled. National park visitation has reached record highs. Americans have resumed normal life. Most have psychologically moved on from the tragedy inflicted on so many families in 9/11's wake.
Therein lies the challenge. Although the nation's focus on the threat has largely receded, Islamic terrorists have not moved on. While the Islamic State has been battered and is on the retreat – having lost over 30 percent of its "caliphate," the land it once held in Iraq and Syria, it has not yet been defeated. "Usama bin Laden is dead, but Bin Ladenism," John Miller warned, is in some ways "stronger than ever."
Counter-terrorism officials said last May that although the U.S. and its coalition allies had conducted over 8,000 air strikes in Iraq and 3,800 in Syria, disrupted communications, killed key leaders and inflicted heavy casualties on ISIS, jihadi groups still claimed an estimated 12,000 fighters in a dozen countries and 31,000 adherents in over 100 countries.
Though the number of recruits is declining and ISIS is preparing its followers for the eventual collapse of the caliphate it so proudly proclaimed two years ago, its leaders urge their adherents to continue their campaign of violence, wherever they are.
This month, according to MEMRI, which monitors Islamist postings, Al Qaeda's aging leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri hailed the "blessed attacks" of 9/11 and urged Muslims to continue targeting America and its allies, along with their own corrupt governments.
"The events of 9/11 were a direct result of your crimes against us, in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Mali, Somalia, Yemen, Islamic Maghreb, and Egypt [and] the result of your occupation of Muslim lands, theft of their resources, and support for the murderous corrupt criminals, who rule over them," he said. "As long as your crimes continue, the events of 9/11 will be repeated thousands of times, by the will of Allah. And we will follow you – if you don't cease your aggression [against us] – until the Day of Judgment."
Though battered, jihadists have not lost focus. Neither must we.