The battle against terrorism has gone off track.
Six years ago this morning two airliners flew out of a clear blue sky and into the World Trade Center, sending more than 2,700 people to horrible deaths and etching a lasting trauma onto the American memory. Two more planes would go down that morning, and more innocents would die.
Minnesotans will recall that morning through different memories -- hearing a radio bulletin and hoping it was wrong, desperately phoning a relative in Manhattan, watching the towers collapse in a plume of dust and panic. But everyone will remember a common mood of outrage, shock and mourning.
On this sad anniversary Americans yearn for unity again -- not on every vote in Congress or every troop deployment, but on a sense of national purpose that expresses American values, comprehends the world's threats and unites the reasoned and tolerant people of the world to disarm the tiny few who use violence and terror to attack the many.
Instead, the nation is divided this week over the messy and distracting issue of Iraq. Gen. David Petraeus went to Capitol Hill on Monday to give a long-awaited report on the war, and far from reassuring voters that their military is making progress, he couldn't even convince them he is using accurate measures of success. In what might have been the most depressing news of the day, the Washington Post reported that a majority of Americans don't even trust Petraeus -- whom President Bush chose precisely because of his trustworthiness -- to be square with them about the war.
Two Americans who have tried hard to level with the public, Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, the former chairman and co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission, chose this week for a desperate effort to get the nation back on task. Writing in the Washington Post, they argued that the United States has made substantial progress in detecting and preventing terrorist attacks, but has actually lost ground in developing a coherent foreign policy to counteract extremism and terror. "We still lack a sense of urgency in the face of grave danger," they wrote.
What would it take to recover that national sense of urgency? A clear and renewed commitment to Afghanistan, where the Taliban remains undefeated. A regional and multilateral consensus on stabilizing Iraq. A diplomatic surge to accompany the military one, because much of the world is a natural ally of the United States and a willing one whenever Americans live and act their values.
It would be nice to commemorate this dreadful anniversary with the knowledge that Osama bin Laden had been brought to justice. Or that Al-Qaida had been dismantled. Or that the United States had rallied the world's undecided nations around the great Western liberal values of pluralism, tolerance and the rule of law. It would be nice, and it's not too late.