Ten Years Later: Where Do We Stand?

As our nation looked back ten years in remembrance of the terrorist attacks that took place on September 11, many commentators reflected on two questions: have our efforts made us safer, and how much work is left to be done?

In two op-eds printed yesterday, former Senator Chuck Hagel, a Ploughshares Fund Board Member, makes the case that work remains. In the Lincoln Journal Star he acknowledges the important steps that have been taken in the last decade to interlace our intelligence units and create a coherent security branch. However, at the same time our debt has skyrocketed, we have brushed aside important issues such as immigration policy, and we have yet to implement all of the recommendations from the 9/11 Commission. His piece in the Omaha World-Herald concludes that in this new time of uncertain threats, American officials are at risk of losing their status as world leaders.

The situation isn’t much different for nuclear policy, where landmark successes in the last ten years have been accompanied by political inaction. As nuclear experts Mark Fitzpatrick and Neil Inkster remind us, 9/11 remains the worst terrorist attack the world has seen. Despite Al Qaeda’s threat, a “nuclear hell storm” was not unleashed following Osama bin Laden’s death. World leaders are largely united in the fight against nuclear terrorism. But this does not mean the threat has diminished.

We know that the nuclear threat was hot on the minds of government officials in the first hours after 9/11. The U.S. Department of Energy worked manically to secure all nuclear materials on American soil that day, redirecting and diverting trucks carrying potentially dangerous substances in an effort to prevent terrorists from accessing a means to acquire a nuclear weapon.

In the decade following, the threat of nuclear terrorism has been held at bay. Credit is partially due to global efforts to secure vulnerable nuclear materials. The rest is largely luck. There is enough fissile material in the world to produce some 100,000 nuclear weapons. As long as these materials remain, so does the risk that they may fall into the wrong hands.

As voiced by the Friend’s Committee on National Legislation’s blog, it is hard to measure whether or not Americans are safer than we were before 9/11. We have certainly adapted our lifestyles to comply with the countless precautionary screenings and security measures that are supposed to reduce the risk of terrorism. One fact we do know for certain: we can truly make our world a more peaceful place by ridding it of the most dangerous, destructive weapons. It is impossible to stop terrorists from entertaining plots against us. It is, however, possible to take away their means of making these plans a reality.

As guest blogger Alexandra Toma pointed out in her recent post, much can be done to ensure that we never have to find out what a nuclear 9/11 might look like. Only by acknowledging the dangers that exist, however, can we move forward and eliminate them for good.

Photo by National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund on Flickr