Sept. 11, 2001, 8:46 a.m. You remember where you were. You remember what you felt. American life would never be the same again — how we boarded a plane, how we viewed our neighbors. The images of hijacked planes slamming into skyscrapers, streets covered in ash, a scorched field in Pennsylvania, people running — but not knowing where to — are etched in our memories. Our friends, neighbors and family members — 2,977 of them — are gone. And within hours of realizing that a new enemy had emerged, defiant, we, too, became resolved: Never again.
Ten years later we are wiser, smarter and safer; our homeland security is strengthened. The American people have adapted to the new normal, and life, as they say, goes on. But we have paid a price. From the streets of Baghdad to the caves of Afghanistan, America's blood and treasure have been spilled. To date, 6,234 men and women in uniform have made the ultimate sacrifice to preserve the very freedoms and liberties that have defined this nation.
The decade since 9/11, however, could have been very different if not for the leadership of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Often the answer to the question, "What happens next?" can be a heavy burden for leadership to bear. Every decision matters and carries with it consequences. So in those hours and days immediately following the attack, decisions were made that would define very clearly for America what happened next.
Former Justice Department official John Yoo noted that President Bush's decision to declare the struggle against al-Qaida terrorists a "war on terror" was an important and pivotal turning point for the United States. "Unlike past administrations, he chose not to view al-Qaida as a Middle Eastern version of the Mafia, if on a grander scale. The 9/11 attacks constituted an act of war — they were a decapitation strike, an effort to eliminate our nation's leadership in a single blow. Al-Qaida's independence from any nation state would not shield it from the American military and leave it to the tender mercies of the FBI and the courts."
From such early decisions, other, more important and course-changing decisions by the Bush administration and Congress would create the cornerstone of a network of strategies to protect the American people from further attacks. From the bipartisan passage of the PATRIOT Act, and the expanded interception of international terrorist emails and phone calls, to the consolidation of fragmented national security agencies and the "enhanced interrogation" techniques of terrorists, all of these actions would result in broader and better intelligence gathering.
As the nation settled back into its routines and the years moved us further away from the terror of that September day, the cord of unanimity that bound our wounds began to unravel, and the chants of "USA, USA" mutated into "No more war." But for President Bush, the passage of time and the changing of attitudes could not slow or end our resolve to secure the future of America from attack.
In 2008 the fog of war combined with the heat of presidential politics to form a lethal elixir. Hot rhetoric and improbable promises not only opened old wounds but also created new ones. And while President Bush's resolve may have held firm, for the American people and those running for the presidency, it was time for something different.
Throughout his run for the White House, Barack Obama questioned and even challenged most of the policies of the Bush administration's war on terror. In fact, within two months of his taking office, President Obama announced that the "global war on terror" would now be called the "overseas contingency operation." But the rhetoric of campaigning is nothing like the realities of governing, and over time, President Obama found himself persuaded to carry forward many of the very policies that he had campaigned against.
From his decision to keep the Guantánamo base open — notwithstanding pressure from his political base to move the prisoners to various places in the United States for civilian trial — to his orders to pursue and kill al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, President Obama has kept faith with the charge of his predecessor that "we are a country awakened to danger and called to defend freedom. Our grief has turned to anger, and anger to resolution. Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done."
In fact, and perhaps more significantly, President Obama dramatically escalated the use of intelligence gathering and state-of-the-art technologies to fight terrorism, efforts begun under President Bush. For example, the Obama administration made significant use of a little-used tool under the previous administration: unmanned CIA Predator drones.
The Obama administration's use of missile-firing drones has been so effective that by the spring of 2010, according to the German newspaper Spiegel, "more missiles have already been fired from drones in the first 13 months since Obama has been in office than in the entire eight years of the Bush presidency."
Brookings Institution Senior Fellow P.W. Singer has further noted that the U.S. military will, for the first time, likely train more drone pilots than fighter pilots, And, according to Singer, up to a third of all aircraft that the military acquires in the future will be unmanned. Indeed, the administration has deployed unmanned drones into Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.
A decade after 9/11, as the Obama administration begins efforts to wind down the U.S. presence in Iraq, we're more than two years into a dramatic increase in our military's presence in Afghanistan. When he first approved the increase, the president reminded us that "the Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan, and al-Qaida supports the insurgency and threatens America from its safe haven along the Pakistani border." So while the location of the mission may have changed and new priorities have emerged, President Obama has remained true to his charge: to keep America safe.
It has been 10 years without an attack on our homeland, and new edifices rise at ground zero on the footprint of the twin towers. But we know that as these tough economic times unfold, the prosecution of our efforts to defeat terror networks around the globe will come under greater and greater scrutiny, and the resolve of the president will be tested.
But President Obama, like President Bush, knows where we have been and appreciates what we must do to secure our shores. Lest we forget, the enemy is still at the gate.
Michael Steele is the former chairman of the Republican National Committee and served as lieutenant governor of Maryland from 2003 to 2007. He is currently a political analyst for MSNBC.