Washington Americans are collectively drawing up a national balance sheet for the year that has passed since the terror attacks of last Sept. 11. They should note these strong new assets:
On this Sept. 11, Americans will be hunting al-Qaida instead of waiting in ignorance for that organization of criminal fanatics and its allies to strike at the United States. A continent's resources are now focused on identifying and destroying those who proudly proclaim they cannot be deterred or placated.
On this Sept. 11, Americans will honor fallen New York firefighters and police officers, the military and civilian workers who died at the Pentagon and those other ordinary people who did extraordinary things aboard a hijacked airliner over Pennsylvania a year ago. The moral strength and bravery of these American martyrs are a source of inspiration for the nation for years to come.
On this Sept. 11, Americans will be vigorously debating the limits on civil liberties that the war on terrorism demands. The Bush administration's proclivity for secrecy and willingness to infringe the rights of American citizens is worrisome. But the essential strength and fairness of the pluralistic system that al-Qaida yearns to destroy is demonstrated in the strong public backlash that has been provoked by the government's abuses.
There is no room for complacency, and no lack of serious economic and political problems for the country on this doleful first anniversary of a day of horror. This is still a time of testing, not a time of counting blessings. We have only begun to fight.
But at least we have begun. As a nation as well as a government, we have begun to speak about evil and about the irrational as major forces in world politics today. Madmen with access to destructive technology, diplomatic pouches and passports as well as easily transferable funds derived from oil shape today's world as surely as scholarly and saintly Nobel Prize winners do. Neither group should be left unacknowledged.
Until now political correctness and the strength of post-colonial myths about the inviolability and omniscience of national sovereignty inhibited truth-telling about the inherent vulnerability of the human condition. But Sept. 11 has changed this too: It has compelled the United States to recognize and respond to the force of the irrational in world politics.
Circumstances demand, in fact, that Washington lead in combating movements who would gladly repeat that day of horror. The Sept. 11 attacks abruptly dragged Washington back onto the world stage in an unexpected front-line security role that now makes other nations uneasy.
The passage of a year has caused the victimization that many Americans still feel vividly to fade in the minds of many abroad. Instant sympathy for American suffering has turned to lingering cynicism about American intentions in much of the European press and even among world leaders.
There is discomfort and reaction not only to George W. Bush's "axis of evil" declaration and his focus on Iraq, but even to Colin Powell's measured and appropriate denunciation last week in Johannesburg of Robert Mugabe's willingness to drive Zimbabwe into starvation to satisfy his own delusional ambitions. An African-American secretary of state was snubbed, heckled and insulted in South Africa essentially for showing up and telling the truth.
A coalition of the corrupt and the coerced resist the stripping away of the myths that aid other countries in blaming their problems not on their own failings but on the stars, or more precisely, on the only remaining global superpower. To fight terrorism and the intolerance that underpins it, Americans must fight the myths as well.
Osama bin Laden and the assassins he recruited used America as a prop for what Lee Harris, writing in this month's Policy Review magazine, correctly calls a "fantasy ideology." The Americans who died on Sept. 11 were mere abstractions to their killers in a mad dream that cannot be understood, explained or refuted in rational terms.
There is no strategic logic in al-Qaida's acts of terror other than immediate destruction, Harris notes, adding that there is "no political policy we could take that would change the attitude of our enemies short, perhaps, of a massive nationwide conversion to fundamentalist Islam."
In the long year after Sept. 11, Americans have correctly focused less on trying to understand "why they hate us" than on justice and security on limiting "their" ability to harm us. We have gone about that task in clumsy and imperfect fashion at times, and have been insensitive to the security needs of others.
But we emerge from that crucible year stronger and more united as a nation, and more realistic about the nature of the dangerous world we inhabit.