September 9, 2011

ON THE 10TH anniversary of al-Qaeda’s attack on New York and Washington, the conventional wisdom seems to be evolving from “We will be hit again” to “Osama bin Laden won by provoking us into a decade of overreaction.”

The feeling is understandable but incorrect, and it would be dangerous if it took hold. Yes, the nation made big mistakes over the past decade. When has America ever geared up without excess and error? But the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon alerted Americans to genuine dangers that only a relative few had noticed. We have lived safely for the decade since not because we misread those dangers but because we responded to them in a manner in which, on balance, Americans can take pride.

The overreaction argument holds that al-Qaeda goaded the nation to curtail civil liberties and construct a monstrous homeland security apparatus while bungling into adventures abroad that birthed new enemies, sapped the American economy and distracted the nation from bigger problems.

There is some truth to each element of the critique. The nation stained itself with its treatment of foreign detainees and particularly its use of interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, that had long been recognized as torture. By refusing to raise taxes to face the new reality, it endangered its fiscal health. The United States went to war in Iraq on the basis of faulty intelligence and was arrogantly ill-prepared for the responsibilities of occupation once Saddam Hussein fell. After initial successes in Afghanistan, it paid insufficient attention as the Taliban attempted a comeback. There’s a danger now that the nation will, once again, withdraw too soon from the challenges.

But al-Qaeda was a well-organized, capable organization intent on causing America mortal harm. It embodied an ideology that repelled most Muslims but was nonetheless attractive enough to permit continuous recruitment. And it was operating in an era when new technologies — nuclear, biological, chemical and cyber — allow small numbers of people to envision doing enormous harm to advanced and open democracies.

CONFRONTED with those realities, two administrations, one Republican and one Democratic, accepted the same strategic truths: The United States must protect itself at home as much as it sensibly can while taking the fight to its enemies overseas — and on both fronts, law enforcement and war are not enough. Abroad, aggression must be coupled with efforts to promote development and democracy in places that would otherwise breed terrorism. At home, vigilance must be coupled with tolerance and economic growth, so that the nation can remain both welcoming and strong. Altogether that is not an easy strategy for a democracy to sustain, because it is expensive, unproven and guaranteed to encounter setbacks. Given the scope of the challenge, the country should give itself some credit for what it has achieved.

There was in fact no large-scale assault on personal freedoms — no equivalent to the Supreme Court-sanctioned roundup of Japanese Americans, no repeat of the Red Scare infringements on freedom of speech and association. The Patriot Act enabled a modest, mostly court-supervised expansion of law enforcement vigilance. When there were excesses in the earliest, most panicked years, there was self-correction, with pushes from within the system (the Justice Department inspector general, for example), from members of Congress of both parties and from unfettered media and public interest groups. There have been hateful acts against Muslim Americans, but overall Americans accepted President George W. Bush’s early insistence that the U.S. war was not against Islam. And though it took too long, Congress and a new administration eventually made clear that torture is not acceptable.

In fairly quick order, the federal bureaucracy reorganized itself around two new phrases: “homeland security” and “connect the dots.” The process brought annoyances to air travel, an occasional total lapse of common sense and undoubtedly a large dose of self-dealing in the contractor world, much of it hidden from view. But it also succeeded in disrupting plots that would have cost many lives.

Overseas, wielding a military that also regrouped and reorganized, the United States dismantled al-Qaeda’s leadership and made it increasingly difficult for the organization to operate. The toppling of dictatorships in Iraq and Afghanistan gave two nations at least a chance at freedom, removed potential havens for America’s enemies and, along with the fall of dictators elsewhere in the Arab world, opened for Muslim-majority countries an alternative path to the medieval caliphate championed by Osama bin Laden.

Over the decade, the United States devoted a far smaller share of its gross domestic product to defense than it did throughout the Cold War. Although it would be nice if those resources could go toward something more peaceful and constructive, the spending is not the cause of America’s economic difficulty. And if the U.S. foreign policy establishment hasn’t paid enough attention to the rise of China or the spread of AIDS, that shouldn’t be blamed entirely on the fight against terrorism; a great power will always have to do more than one thing at a time.

NONE OF THIS means that the United States must remain perpetually at war. Having created an enormous apparatus to protect the country, we should be vigilant that it does not exaggerate the threat to justify its existence. But the risks from cyberattack and concealed weapons of mass destruction are here to stay. And al-Qaeda and like-minded groups, while weakened, have not been defeated, as warnings of a plot timed to the anniversary remind us.

In fact, with politicians from President Obama to Republican challenger Jon Huntsman Jr. calling for the country to (in Mr. Obama’s words) “focus on nation-building here at home,” the greatest danger now may be premature retreat from a difficult battlefield. “I know Americans are tired of war,” says Ryan Crocker, who served the Bush administration as ambassador to Pakistan and Iraq and has returned to service, at Mr. Obama’s request, as ambassador to Afghanistan. “I’m kind of tired, too. . . . But we’ve got to get it right. . . . I don’t think al-Qaeda is out of business because they lost bin Laden — not by a long shot.”

Perhaps ironically, the 10th anniversary has brought nostalgia not only for the innocence of the pre-Sept. 11 era but also for the togetherness that immediately followed — for what Mr. Obama called, in a USA Today op-ed Friday, “the unity that we needed to move forward together . . . the sense of common purpose that stirred in our hearts.”

We, too, hope the nation can muster the common purpose to sustain the effort that Mr. Crocker refers to. But we do not mourn the reemergence, not long after Sept. 11, of disagreement and dissent. The fights sometimes got ugly during the past 10 years, but those arguments — over Iraq and Afghanistan, wiretapping and waterboarding — bear witness to the nation’s resilience and character. They are by no means a weakness.

And what of the vows we made, in the shock of vulnerability, to engage in acts of kindness, to spend more time with loved ones, to live lives less distracted by frivolous or material desires? To the extent we’ve fallen short, we can mourn those, too. But it is human nature to be recaptured by the bustle of ordinary life. That we have had the luxury to do so is testament to the dedication of compatriots, in uniform and out, seen and unseen, fallen and surviving, who have fought and worked to keep the country safe.