Is U.S. Safer Since Sept. 11 Attacks?

As we observed the second anniversary of 9/11, the question naturally arose: Are we safer today than we were two years ago?

But a simple "yes" or "no" oversimplifies a complex situation. A conditional "yes" is more appropriate.

No one can deny that fighting terrorism around the world increases the likelihood that we'll fall victim to another attack in the near-term, but this is a necessary risk to ensure our long-term safety. It's also true, however, that no terrorists have successfully executed a major attack on American soil since Sept. 11, 2001. That doesn't mean an attack can't occur tomorrow, but it shows how much progress we've made over the past two years. Indeed, we've taken concrete steps that will make the nation safer in the long run. Let's consider some victories that will make our country safer:
--Eliminating two of the world's leading state sponsors of terrorism. On 9/11, the Taliban (search) ruled Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq. Today, neither is in power.

A deadly synergy is created when states like Iraq and Afghanistan choose to work with terrorist groups. States have resources -- territory, finances, trade -- that non-state actors lack. But non-state actors can operate globally and largely undetected. Today, a state like Iraq could harness its resources to develop a weapon of mass destruction and conspire with non-state actors to deliver that weapon.

This symbiotic relationship can operate undercover, possibly without the knowledge of the American government. Thus, a state hostile to us may appear to be acting within the bounds of acceptable diplomatic behavior while covertly supporting the aggressive endeavors of its non-state allies. This is exactly what both the Taliban and Saddam Hussein's Iraq were doing before they were removed from power.
--Denying terrorists organizations the ability to freely operate. Yes, al Qaeda (search) still exists, but the organization is on the run. Thousands of terrorists have been detained or killed over the past two years. These include not only low-level henchman like Richard Reid (search) (the "shoe bomber"), but high-level strategists Khalied Shaik Mohammad (search), Riduan Isamuddin (search) (also known as Hambali), and Uday and Qusay Hussein (search).

The enablers of terrorist activity are also under assault. Financial flows that were the life-blood of organizations like al Qaeda are being disrupted; there are far fewer gaping security loopholes for terrorists to exploit. States like Saudi Arabia that have often enabled terrorists -- if not outright supported them -- can no longer ignore such activity.
--Developing a deterrence strategy appropriate for modern threats. Both Usama bin Laden and the Taliban could have predicted that the United States would retaliate, yet they weren't deterred. The prevailing belief was that no state would attack the United States out of fear of the consequences; the activities of organized terrorist networks were treated as criminal behavior.

After 9/11, however, President Bush unveiled the Bush Doctrine (search), founded on the principle that the United States would actively engage, militarily if necessary, rogue nations that support terrorists and develop weapons of mass destruction. The president's description of these states as forming an "Axis of Evil" (search) put the world on alert. While America's anti-terrorist activities in Afghanistan, Africa, the Philippines and Indonesia have supported this principle, the president's willingness to wage full-scale war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq demonstrated to the world his commitment to uphold this new doctrine. The result: States know the price of directly or indirectly supporting violence against the United States or its interests.
--Better understanding our own vulnerability. Until 9/11, most Americans and their government believed we faced no real security dangers. They largely ignored the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the spread of ballistic missile technology, the increasingly violent terrorist attacks occurring against U.S. interests abroad, and the increasingly belligerent and hostile rhetoric coming from the Usama bin Ladens and Saddam Husseins of the world. On 9/11, however, the United States was forced to reevaluate its own vulnerability.

The result was a series of policy changes that address the new dangers we face. Our policy-makers have been continuously identifying weaknesses, oversights and mistakes.
Unfortunately, politics has snuck into the debate. Some have attempted to undermine the credibility of the president's policies in order to advance their own political agenda. The important point is, though, that the government and the public remain committed to developing strong policies for the war on terrorism. All of which makes us, yes, safer today.

Jack Spencer is a senior policy analyst for defense and national security at the Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation, where Ha Nguyen is a researcher.