Our Views: Remembering Sept. 11 attacks

The anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States reminds us of far we’ve come — and how far we have to go — in responding to threats from beyond our borders.

Twelve years ago, 19 militants connected with the Islamic extremist group al-Qaida hijacked four airliners with plans to crash them into U.S. landmarks. Two planes struck the World Trade Center in New York, leveling its twin skyscrapers. Another plane struck the Pentagon, causing more death and destruction. A fourth plane crashed into a field in Pennsylvania after its passengers and crew rose up against the terrorists who had commandeered the aircraft. The valor of the passengers and crew prevented the plane from reaching another highly populated target.

More than 3,000 people died as a result of the attacks.

The attacks triggered U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. President George W. Bush argued that invading Iraq was necessary to destroy weapons of mass destruction that might eventually be used by terrorists. Investigators never found such weapons in Iraq. That absence dimmed public confidence in the credibility of America’s intelligence establishment and also created suspicions that intelligence data was being manipulated for political purposes. America’s lengthy and exhausting involvement in Afghanistan, a campaign now finally winding down, renewed public skepticism about the costs of military engagement.

That skepticism rests at the center of today’s debate about whether the United States should send missile strikes against Syria.

In the dozen years since the 9/11 attacks, Americans have seen the limits of military power. Such power is a necessary safeguard against despots, and we applaud those who have fought and suffered in defense of America’s interests.

But the biggest blow to terrorism will come in the growth of strong, democratic societies in which people respect difference rather than seeking to destroy it. Sadly, that kind of progress seems slow indeed in the Middle East, where political turmoil and fundamentalism continue to drive terrorist movements.

To nurture liberty around the world, America must lead by example. That’s why recent debates about U.S. government monitoring programs and proposed missile strikes against Syria should be viewed as a strength of our political system, not a weakness.

The ability to settle differences through deliberation and debate, rather than division and destruction, remains the most potent answer to the attacks we suffered on Sept. 11, 2001.