It's easy with all the partisan reaction to Gen. David Petraeus's Iraq report to forget the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. But Americans must remember that day, not just to honor those lost but as a touchstone for what yet needs to be done.
True healing of the sorrow over those attacks lies not in the lapse of time but in continuing to come together to end our vulnerability to Islamic militants.
For a while after 9/11, the American sense of unity was palpable. So were many reforms that followed – but they are not nearly enough. Fresh CIA warnings of Al Qaeda's renewed strength in Pakistan and elsewhere, despite US erosion of its capability over the years, shows a continuing need for better national unity in creating real security. Without that, the US government may suffer the same type of organizational breakdown that could not prevent the 9/11 attacks or that could not stop bad decisions from being made by the US in Iraq. A people alert to its enemies should not let its security officials lapse into apathy, neglect, or political divisiveness.
Pointing fingers at individuals for 9/11, such as former security officials or presidents (Bush or Clinton) should not prevent solutions to deeper, systemic problems that still lie in the military and intelligence services. Despite independent studies and some effective reorganization, many of those problems persist, such as foolproof coordination among spy agencies.
And the nation still has not resolved the civil-liberties question of what to do with Guantánamo's detainees or whether a Palestinian-Israeli peace deal will help create a peace-embracing Middle East.
Still, the fact remains that the US has not been attacked by an Al Qaeda cell for six years.
That is no small solace for all the sacrifices and political debate since 9/11. The nation must be grateful for no attack since then, despite the need for more reforms, high losses among civilians and US soldiers in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and Al Qaeda attacks in other nations.
President Bush's post-9/11 vow was to prevent another attack on the US homeland. Both he and Congress have done much to prevent such a recurrence. Unfortunately, the US was forced into this war on Al Qaeda at a time of extreme political polarization, reflected in the cliffhanger 2000 presidential election between Mr. Bush and Al Gore. The 2004 and 2006 elections didn't resolve that divide very much, and the campaigns for the 2008 election reveal the possibility of even more divisions over the direction of the war on Al Qaeda. With such a split among civilian leaders, it's no wonder the nation simply defaults to its military, such as General Petraeus, for Olympus-like advice.
But the Founding Fathers didn't want wars run by generals. And as much as Petraeus is an expert on counterinsurgency warfare, the responsibility for Iraq or the larger war on Islamic terror still falls to elected leaders. They must pull together all factors, from diplomatic strategy to ambiguous estimates from spy agencies, to make decisions on behalf of all Americans.
The best presidential candidate for 2008 is the one who can bring Americans together over the war tasks ahead. Finding a wide consensus among Americans won't be easy. That's why each 9/11 anniversary serves as an opportunity for a pause in rancor and a renewed desire for unity.