Eight years ago today the United States was attacked in what was the worst terrorist attack in the nation's history. Since that day America's leaders have been warning the country that an attack on U.S. soil is imminent.
In January 2002, during President Bush's first State of the Union address, he said "Thousands of dangerous killers, schooled in the methods of murder, often supported by outlaw regimes, are now spread throughout the world like ticking time bombs, set to go off without warning."
Vice President Cheney followed the president's warning a few months later in May saying, "I think that the prospects of a future attack on the U.S. are almost a certainty. It could happen tomorrow, it could happen next week, it could happen next year, but they will keep trying."
America watched nervously, anticipating the worst but no attack came. Since that sunny September morning 8 years ago the United States has been able to stay safe – but how?
Immediately after the attacks the U.S. government took drastic measures to beef up its national security. President Bush created the Department of Homeland Security to streamline its efforts and appointed former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge to head the department. According to Ridge, the creation of this department was one of the best things the Bush administration did to help fight terrorism. "I think the ripple effect of creating the department has resulted in a security platform that most Americans don't see on a day to day basis but I know exists."
With the creation of the department came more communication between the federal, state and local governments. New rules and regulations allowed these agencies to work as a team. "Remember right after 911 everyone said nobody connected the dots," says Ridge. "Well I'm here to tell you there are a lot more dots because there is a lot more intelligence coming in."
The Department of Homeland Security identified that one of our country's weakest links was our border control. To help seal the borders DHS gave U.S. Custom and Border agents the discretion to deny entrance to people they felt could be terrorists.
In 2003, a Jordanian man named Raed al-Banna was attempting to enter the country in Chicago. While he was being questioned by a U.S. Customs agent, he was explaining that he had a visa to travel between Jordan and the U.S. legally but when the agent questioned how he had supported himself during lengthy stays in America he admitted that he had worked odd jobs in Los Angeles. Working in the U.S. without a green card is not allowed so al-Banna was fingerprinted and deported.
A year and a half later, a suicide attack in Hilla, Iraq killed 166 people. When authorities were combing through the rubble they found a severed hand chained to the steering wheel of the vehicle the suicide bomber drove. They ran the prints and the bomber was identified as al-Banna.
National Security authorities were not only concerned about al Qaeda soldiers infiltrating the United States but also their ideas taking hold. With a large Muslim population in this country there was an overwhelming fear that Osama bin Laden's ideology might appeal to some creating home-grown terrorists. Terrorism expert Brian Jenkins of the RAND corporation says there are two reasons that this has not happened.
"America's Muslim population, those to whom al Qaeda would appeal its exhortation to carry out actions, have simply not been receptive to his calls for violence," says Jenkins. "In fact as a community, they have been hostile to his brand of terrorism."
Secondly, he says that the lack of competency has played a central role in authorities catching home-grown terrorists before they have a chance to act. Jenkins cautions, "...one has to be careful with this. The difference between a band of amateurs being able to do nothing and a small group being able to carry out a dangerous terrorist attack is having one determined technically competent leader."
New York City has been the target of eight attempted terrorist attacks since 9/11, according to New York City police officials. All have failed but New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly reminds us, "...it's important to put it in context and it's not for lack of trying." The target for most of the attacks has been so-called soft targets such as the Brooklyn Bridge, the subway system and a Jewish synagogue. These are places considered vulnerable because they lack the high security of high profile targets like the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State building.
Most terrorism experts agree that complacency is the nation's biggest challenge and it is important to remain vigilant. While our government has committed billions of dollars and thousands of people to keeping this country safe, Brian Jerkins looks to the American people as a whole to stand up to terrorism.
"Ultimately the defense of this country is going to rest upon the courage of our individual citizens being realistic about risk, being committed to the values for which this nation stands and has stood for more than two centuries."