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It is 12 years since Americans confronted the unimaginable, their nation under attack. Despite possessing the greatest military arsenal ever assembled, on Sept. 11, 2001 the United States found itself vulnerable to a small group of suicidal fanatics who used box cutters to hijack commercial airliners and turn them into missiles.
The Pentagon was hit, the Towers fell, nearly 3,000 civilians died and the United States changed.
For those students entering their first year of college the incident is largely history, a vague memory from early childhood. How quickly time passes.
The anger over the attack clouded judgment. It led to a U.S. invasion of Iraq wrongly linked to the attacks of Sept. 11 and based on fabricated evidence that weapons of mass destruction threatened the United States.
Stronger was the link to Afghanistan, which the United States invaded to oust the extremist Taliban regime that played host to the al-Qaida training grounds from which the 9/11 attack sprung. Yet 12 years into that war Americans question what has changed.
The Taliban are no longer in control, but remain dug in throughout Afghanistan's vast remote areas, awaiting the U.S. exit. Improvements in women's rights, health care, commerce and education have been significant, but corruption remains rampant. Afghanistan is still a backward Third World country.
Al-Qaida forces there were routed, but sprout up in the Muslim world when poverty, ignorance, frustration and political instability provide the necessary vacuum; Algeria, Libya, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan - Syria.
If the 9/11 attacks made Americans too willing to send their volunteer forces into harm's way, the resulting wars have left them overly reticent to respond with missile strikes even when a tyrant unleashes chemical weapons on his own people.
After Sept. 11, Americans traded privacy for security, removing belts and shoes and subjecting to electronic body searches at airports. They accepted largely unquestioned government assurances the surveillance would not go too far. However, upon learning those massive National Security Agency computers are sifting through every call and email communication, many have come to the realization that too far has arrived.
In the wake of 9/11, some said Americans had become too consumed by the inconsequential and had failed to remain aware of the world around them and the implications for their country. Predicted was a new seriousness. Instead, Americans have become more insular, fixated on texting and tweeting about the trivial and on the latest chatter on Facebook.
Most surprisingly, perhaps, is that there have been no more massive terrorist attacks on the homeland. Back then, people assumed more attacks would come. That they have not is a product of improved intelligence, stepped up surveillance and increased security, along with the continuing efforts to disrupt al-Qaida.
The challenge moving forward is to maintain the necessary vigilance to guard against another attack, while striking a reasonable balance to protect liberty. The nation cannot afford to forget the lessons of 9/11, but it also cannot afford to let that trauma and its aftermath distort future foreign policy decisions or set aside the freedoms that define us.