Editorial: Sept. 11’s lesson: Remain vigilant

It is true, as those at the frontlines in the war on terror insist, that we cannot be reminded enough of that horrible day five years ago when America was attacked by Islamic jihadists. Those attackers intend for us unspeakable harm.

And yet, if we are to survive and live productive lives in a liberal civilization, we must have surcease from all those excruciating images. We let them vanquish us if we smother our pursuit of happiness in ongoing grief.

Somehow, then, it is incumbent upon us to punctuate our everyday lives, so full of joy and caring, with reminders of that day — and of days ahead, perhaps even more harrowing, that could reduce Sept. 11, 2001, to an early skirmish in a long war.

Many of us had hoped that this war, in every dimension different from conventional wars of the past, would have been settled by now. We could file away those too-real images and sounds of our fellow citizens who, contemplating their imminent incineration, catapulted themselves from the upper stories of the World Trade Center.

We could make theatrical films, grippingly realistic, of the doomed United Flight 93, whose heroic passengers stopped hijackers from aiming their aircraft at the U.S. Capitol, only to direct its nose toward a Pennsylvania pasture. We could produce agitprop “documentaries,” develop conspiracy theories, write tendentious books — all to be bound as a single event to be shelved and pulled down for an occasional look at recent history.

But all that risks sending us into denial. We simply cannot stay in the fog, hoping — perhaps because of our region’s angular posture toward the Bush administration, perhaps because we sense that our pluralism and tolerance protect us — that San Francisco and its environs will never be stricken as New York City was. Those very qualities we celebrate, it turns out, profoundly affront Islamic radicals.

Too many targets tempt them. The beautiful bridges. Our transit system. What was done to the subways of Madrid, London and Mumbai could be done to BART. A single container arriving at our great ports could contain a nuclear device or bio-chemical weapon, to be set off remotely. Or imagine smaller-scale attacks, just to make our daily lives uneasy.

The suicide bombers known to Israelis could become a part of our lives also. Or we could know more carnage in our streets if an immigrant exposed to toxic jihadism decides suddenly to kill people whose culture alienates him.

Because of such possibilities, it was a poor spectacle when many American communities looked to Homeland Security as a pork barrel. San Francisco’s leaders, by contrast, stand out as perfectly responsible in demanding our share. They know few cities offer such an inviting target.

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