Even without unity, U.S. powerful when virtuous

It is hard now to remember the feeling that swept over our country five years ago Monday. Our country, our people, had suffered a devastating and destructive attack by a shadowy but malignant force whose motivations we struggled to try to understand.

In the aftermath, however, we were all Americans together, all determined to figure out who (the why could wait) and bring them to justice, all determined that this attack would not only not destroy this great country but make it stronger. The rest of the world shared our pain, our sorrow, our anger, our determination.

It couldn’t last, of course. A country as large and diverse as the United States could not stay unified forever. Besides, unity is an overrated virtue, especially in a country founded on individualism and freedom. Since politics is inherently grounded in opposition, one to the other, it was no doubt inevitable that unity would revert to partisanship, although the polarization of the present day is troubling in its own way, if only because it feeds the illusion that there are only two choices in public life when in fact there are thousands of alternatives potentially open.

Those who fly are reminded each time they board a plane of what the terrorists have done to a society whose primordial instinct is to be free and trusting and open. We flinch at the indignities and tell ourselves it is possibly in service to security. Small towns across America have shiny new fire trucks in tribute to the American tendency to throw money randomly at a perceived problem. 9/11 didn’t “change everything,” but it changed a lot. The government has more power and Americans have less freedom, but the spirit of freedom remains.

We live now with our leaders’ failure to understand that the terrorists don’t hate us so much for who we are, with our vaunted freedoms and occasional license, but for what our government does in other parts of the world. The invasion of Iraq compounded the perception that Uncle Sam seeks not so much vindication against those who harm us as domination of other parts of the world.

Instead of concentrating on those who attacked us the government sought to settle an older score, adding a thin veneer of terrorism-related justification. Now Iraq has become a recruiting tool for jihadist terrorists and a sand trap for our military, consuming resources and lives in a cause that is difficult to define, making the definition of victory ever murkier.

To be sure, there is evidence that deploying financial, special forces and other military and law enforcement tools has degraded al-Qaida into an outfit that inspires and assists in rather than carries out terrorist activities. Yet it may be more dangerous in that role, as the threat becomes more dispersed and capable of striking societies, as London and Madrid now know all too well, from within as well as from without.

Osama bin Laden may not be the master coordinator, but he is still alive and at large, provoking misery.

Are we safer now? It is a plaintive question without a clear answer. Government agencies, private businesses and ordinary households have increased security in ways both wise and foolish. But we live with the knowledge that in a country as open as ours, with so many tempting targets, a determined terrorist can and probably eventually will find a way to do damage.

We also know, however, that America, with all its divisions and occasional hostilities, is remarkably resilient. And so long as we stay true to our highest ideals of liberty, justice and compassion, hostile forces may be able to hurt us, but they can’t destroy us as a country.

Let freedom ring!