The war on terror isn't over, even though it's no longer called by that name. There are still almost 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, almost 50,000 in Iraq. The real cost of those wars – more than 5000 killed in action, more than 45,000 injured – changed many lives irrevocably.
But for most Americans, the most striking fact remains not how much 9/11 changed, but how little.
Graham Allison is director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a former assistant secretary of Defense.
In November 2001, Allison wrote that "After Sept. 11, a nuclear terrorist attack can no longer be dismissed as an analyst's fantasy. … As the international noose tightens around Al Qaeda's neck, the group will become more desperate and audacious." Ten years later, he says we have made some progress in keeping nuclear weapons out of terrorist groups' hands.
On 9/11, 19 terrorists killed more Americans than the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. If the terrorists had been in possession of a nuclear weapon, the attack might have killed 300,000.
Post 9/11, President Bush, and now President Obama, have declared nuclear terrorism the biggest threat to American national security.
The United States has taken the lead in investing more than $10 billion and countless hours in securing and eliminating nuclear weapons and material worldwide. President Obama's Nuclear Security Summit in 2010 focused exclusively on the threat. As a result of these efforts, thousands of weapons and material that could have produced thousands more weapons are better secured today than they were a decade ago. In Russia, which has the world's largest stockpile of nuclear weapons and material, hundreds of sensitive sites have been secured; 17 countries have eliminated their weapons-usable material stockpiles entirely.
But to prevent a nuclear 9/11, all nuclear weapons and weapons-usable material everywhere must be secured to a "gold standard" — beyond the reach of terrorists or thieves.
On that agenda, much remains to be done. The ever-more fragile state of Pakistan has the world's most rapidly expanding nuclear arsenal. North Korea today has enough material for about 10 nuclear bombs. And Iran now has enough low enriched uranium, if further processed, for four nuclear weapons. One of these weapons in the hands of terrorists could mean an "American Hiroshima"
The price of success in preventing a nuclear 9/11 remains eternal vigilance.
James Fallows is a national correspondent for the Atlantic and an author.
In September 2001, Fallows wrote in his essay "Step One: Station a Marshal Outside Every Cockpit Door" that: "There may not be a next time, as everything involving air travel becomes more constrained. The tightening of security, while necessary, almost certainly will have aspects of fighting the last war. We may spend years refining passenger-screening processes, only to have the next terrorist explosive arrive by barge.
… Any system careful enough to eliminate sophisticated terrorists also would be cumbersome enough to negate the speed advantage of traveling by air."
I wish my fears had had turned out to be wholly unfounded. And when it comes to the specific scenario of bombs aboard barges, I'm glad to say that they have been, at least so far.
Unfortunately, there was a much broader challenge that many people, including me, foresaw from the very beginning of the push toward a sweeping emphasis on "homeland security" and the "global war on terror." This was the risk that, in the name of "protecting" ourselves against future threats, we might ultimately give up, distort or sacrifice the values that made a free society most worth defending. I am sorry to say that this fear has largely been realized.
We can't be sure of much when it comes to future acts of terrorism, but one certainty is that there will never be "another 9/11." That attack depended for its shocking success on people not imagining that airliners would be used as large-scale urban bombs. Everyone in the world now understands that possibility, which is why a "9/11-style" attack simply cannot be pulled off again. If the passengers and crew on a plane did not stop future hijackers from flying a fuel-laden plane into a city, the Air Force would.
We also know that our reflexive response to threats has given tremendous leverage to any handful of people who conceive of a new means of attack. Because of one foiled shoe-bombing attempt, hundreds of millions of air passengers worldwide continue removing their shoes before boarding planes. Osama bin Laden's associates spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on their attacks. America's chosen response has cost the nation trillions of dollars in direct military and security expenditures, not to mention the other costs.