Garcia: 9/11 lesson – be vigilant

You can push it to the back of your mind, but there’s no escaping the date on the calendar — Sept. 11, for most Americans the singular news event of their lives.

Yet as much as the images of the worst terrorist attack on American soil remain vivid, time has removed some of the emotional resonance that greeted the date in the previous five years, in much the same way that all traumatic incidents lose their ability to command public focus as the years roll on.

Instead, the discussion of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has quietly morphed into a lingering debate about what to do in its aftermath — with the war in Iraq remaining the centralfocus of Congress and military leaders struggling to figure out a troop withdrawal schedule that won’t escalate civil war in a country already torn by it.

Monday’s top news item involved the congressional testimony of Army Gen. David Petraeus, the chief U.S. commander, who told officials that the objectives of the increased troop levels in Iraq are largely being met. Yet six years down the road, it’s hard not to greet that assessment with skepticism, and it just goes to point out that many people still have difficulty connecting the war in Iraq with the 2001 terrorist attacks since there’s never been a credible connection made between the attack and the Iraq invasion.

Still, it hasn’t stopped anyone from using 9/11 for political purposes as a stream of recent ads — both pro- and anti-war — shows, and the Bush administration has never been shy about using the date as a way to link the war and its campaign against global terrorism. Just last week, a new video surfaced featuring al-Qaida mastermind Osama bin Laden, who has remained at large since that infamous day in American history and who uses the date as a symbolic way to target the United States and induce fear among Western “infidels.’’

Yet there is an unerring sense that a lot of Americans have moved beyond the rawness of that terrible day, even if polls continue to show that 9/11 remains the biggest news event in modern U.S. history. A USA Today/Gallup poll taken during the weekend found that only 6 percent of the respondents said they planned to observe the anniversary today with any formal ceremony and nearly one-fourth of those asked said they didn’t plan to observe it at all.

I think the question shouldn’t be how people will remember the day, but whether we’ve actually learned anything since then and closed the gaping holes that existed among the country’s intelligence agencies that failed us so badly six year ago.

It pays to remember that the cast ofinternational villains who came to be known by us after Sept. 11 were on the lists of the FBI, the CIA, the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service long before the jetliners crashed into the twin towers. Indeed, these known terrorists somehow managed to travel freely here and abroad, visiting our local courts and federal and state agencies. At least one of the suicidal hijackers, Mohammed Atta, managed to travel abroad on an expired visa even though he had been on a government watch list of suspected terrorists since he was implicated in a bus bombing in Israel in 1986.

So are we safer today than we were six years ago? According to the co-chairs of the bipartisan commission that studied the events of Sept. 11, we are, but not nearly as prepared as we should be.

Citing a “mixed record of reform, a lack of focus and a resilient foe, our ability to respond to terrorist attacks has been difficult, incomplete and slow,’’ commission members Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton concluded in a Washington Post report Sunday. “But it has been real.’’

Still, they noted that U.S. foreign policy, such as it is, has failed to halt the rising tide of extremism in the Muslim world and is also losing the “struggle for ideas.’’

That may seem a bit esoteric to most people thinking about Sept. 11, but it also serves as a reminder that a lot of presidents before Bush also talked tough about dealing with global terrorism, and we know the results of their inaction.

So it will never be just another day, but it’s inevitable that the emotions of that day dissolve over time in much the same way the previous attacks or wars have drifted into memory.

Sept. 11 isn’t there yet, but a lot of Americans would be hard-pressed to remember which war Armistice Day celebrated. It’s natural to want to move on, but not forget.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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