Americans who ask whether we're safer now than we were five years ago are asking the wrong question. Even if the answer is yes (and it is), that offers pretty cold comfort because we're not safe; we're at war.
This war was started by enemies who are trying to kill Americans in their own hometowns. Until they stop, we won't be safe from them.
Historically speaking, this isn't a huge change. It hasn't been that long since we emerged from a Cold War in which we went to work and school every day for almost four decades under the threat of nuclear annihilation.
Real progress can be measured only by asking whether we have adopted the right strategy to win the long war on terrorism. And the answer to that question is, mostly, yes.
In protracted conflicts, leaders must be as concerned about protecting the power of the people and the capacity of the community to thrive and remain free as they are about getting the enemy. That was the secret to the success of U.S. strategy during the Cold War.
That strategy has four components -- security, economic growth, the protection of civil liberties and winning the war of ideas. To win, all four have to be done well. In this long war, we're off to an acceptable start. Without question, today's counterterrorism measures are more effective than the ones we had in place before Sept. 11.
There is little difference in character between the 2001 plot aimed at New York and Washington, D.C., and the recently foiled plan to blow up multiple trans-Atlantic flights. However, the Sept. 11 plot proceeded without serious interference. By contrast, we were on to the London cell for more than a year. In addition, U.S. authorities have broken up at least 15 other potential plots here.
Last year, eight people died from terrorist attacks in all of North America, a welcome change from the 3,000-plus who died in 2001. Terrorists have turned to where the pickings are easier, murdering mostly innocent people in the Middle East and South and Southeast Asia.
Economic growth is essential to winning the long war. It's what eventually allowed the West to outrace the Soviet Union. Today, the U.S. economy remains strong. And so far we've resisted doing really stupid things in the name of security ( such as inspecting every container shipped here, ending foreign investment or requiring every foreign visitor to have a visa), which would cost a lot of money but not make us any safer.
A healthy civil society is what enables democracies to prevail in long wars. That will is sustained by protecting individual constitutional liberties -- and here, hysterical claims by some radical anti-war critics aside, the government has shown due restraint.
The Patriot Act is a case in point. While its detractors decried the law as an assault on civil liberties, five years later, we know otherwise. There has not been one serious constitutional challenge to the law, and its implementation has not eroded the liberties of American citizens.
All wars are won in the minds of men and women. That is especially true in long wars -- ones that rarely end in climactic battles or victory parades. Winning the war of ideas is essential.
Despite the negative press worldwide, it's hard to argue that the cause of freedom and justice is losing. Osama bin Laden's poll numbers have never been lower, and sponsors of state-terrorism such as Iran and Syria never more isolated.
The war is far from won. Like all wars, progress never occurs in a straight line. Wars are a contest of action and counteraction between two determined foes. We can't expect the enemy to slink quietly into the night. The enemy is fighting back, and we will make mistakes. There will be casualties and losses and, perhaps on occasion, the loss of the feeling of personal safety in our homes.
But America has taken the first right steps. It is determined to prevail, it is taking the battle to the enemy, and it offers a credible alternative to those seeking peace and justice. But Americans should be more concerned with being on the winning side than being on the safe side.
James Carafano is Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), and author of the new book "G.I. Ingenuity."
First appeared in Press-Enterprise