WACO – Nearly five years after Americans received a deadly lesson in terrorism from attacks by airline hijackers and a day after another terror plot involving planes was foiled, the question is: How safe are we?
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration has launched an unprecedented counteroffensive on terrorism, with covert programs in warrantless electronic eavesdropping, financial and other surveillance.
Organizations like the FBI have seen their mission refocused largely on addressing terrorism, while Americans have grown accustomed to heightened security at airports and large public events like the Super Bowl.
And President Bush and his allies in Congress have created the Department of Homeland Security, a $41 billion-a-year agency combining 22 federal offices and departments into a massive government bureaucracy.
"This country is safer than it was prior to 9/11; we’ve taken a lot of measures to protect the American people," Bush said Thursday. "But obviously, we’re still not completely safe, because there are people that still plot and people who want to harm us."
Some people outside government, however, say that U.S. policies in the Middle East, especially the prosecution of the war in Iraq, are fortifying terrorist organizations and keeping Americans vulnerable.
"We have to acknowledge that in the 21st century, anybody can do just about anything they want, using mass media, mass transportation and new technologies, and there is simply no way to police every cup of coffee or tube of toothpaste that goes on an airplane," said David Potorti, a member of the September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.
Potorti, who lost his brother, James, in the attack on the World Trade Center, said, "I think our militaristic actions in the Middle East have been a five-year recruitment campaign for extremists."
For Bush, the war in Iraq is a central front in the war on terrorism, following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan that ousted its Taliban regime and drove its al-Qaida allies underground.
James A. Phillips, an expert on international terrorism at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said he believes the United States is safer than it was before 9/11 in part because of a new awareness about the terrorist threat, but also because of better intelligence and cooperation with other countries.
"The threat is going to be there regardless of what our foreign policy is, but by strongly attacking al-Qaida, the world is better off – and while it’s true that the war in Iraq may be giving al-Qaida more recruits, if it’s successful in the creation of a democracy in Iraq, that would go far toward reducing that threat," he said.
On Capitol Hill, the split over which factors to blame and how to respond to the latest plot played out among members of the Senate.
Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the incident highlights the need to continue the fight abroad.
"We must strengthen our resolve and continue taking the fight to them, so that those attacking democracy and freedom abroad do not once again bring their fanaticism to the shores of our homeland," Cornyn said.
But Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat and former Bush presidential rival, said that Bush’s strategy of staying the course in Iraq is not making America safer.
"This event exposes the misleading myth that we are fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them here," said Kerry.
Bush said Thursday that Britain’s arrests of the plotters serve as "a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom."
Some experts took issue with his remarks.
The Islamists’ "principal gripe is about non-Muslims invading and occupying Muslim lands," said Ivan Eland, a senior scholar the liberal-leaning Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif.
"There is a pattern here," Eland said, "and whether it’s Sunni extremists, al-Qaida, Hamas or Hezbollah, it’s the same issue: foreign occupation and foreign meddling."