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Are we winning the war with terrorism?

A year after President Bush and the Congress declared war on terrorism, Americans are reflecting, mourning our dead, and evaluating our progress against a shadowy enemy. While we are succeeding for the most part, some objectives have not been achieved. More importantly, the government's efforts to prevent more terrorist acts have begun to raise questions about the sanctity of fundamental American freedoms.

Certainly our military prowess has proven sufficient. The Taliban has been routed and replaced by a regime that is at least friendly to the United States. That regime, however, is obviously unstable and, during the assault on the Taliban, committed unspeakable acts of mass murder. Whether the regime can evolve into a state capable of respectable engagement in the family of nations is at best an open question.

Osama bin Laden apparently remains at large. Having declared him 'Wanted ? Dead or Alive' the President has since down played the importance of capturing or killing the leader of Al Qaida. This is not satisfactory. Osama bin Laden plainly is our primary enemy, a rattlesnake hidden in mountain stones and capable at any moment of striking with deadly results. While our war with Al Qaida does not end with his death or capture it certainly cannot end until he is pronounced dead or captured.

Al Qaida has been scattered and put to flight. The recent captures of more of its leaders show an effective and ongoing military and police effort to root out and neutralize the hydra terrorist organization. If American forces can keep them running and hiding, grinding them slowly into ineffectiveness, the Al Qaida terrorists will have been defeated and the world made safer. Our apparent success against 'sleeper cells' within the United States is an encouraging indicator that our law enforcement agencies are at last cooperating.

The fact that there have been no further attacks on American soil must not be discounted. Indeed, it is the primary achievement in the war. And even though the safety we enjoy can be shattered in a moment, and while much work remains to be done, there is no question that we are safer today than we were on Sept. 10, 2001. All in all, we can say we are winning the war against terrorism, and the President rightly warns that final victory is still in the distance.

On a larger scale, the results often seem contradictory. Our allies seem reluctant at times, and the ongoing violence in Israel and Palestine is devastating and tragic. The good news, though, is that we are engaged. President Bush began his Administration thumbing his nose at our allies and denying the need for American leadership in the brutal, even bestial world of Middle East politics. He has learned, though he often appears reluctant to learn. He has begun to perceive paradox, though his mind prefers the black-and-white. He has compromised, though he prefers to dictate. The evolution of George W. Bush is underway. If it continues, we will have witnessed the maturation of a politician from the merely average to the possibly great, from the puerile and contumacious to the mature and serene.

This is the same journey on which America's still young nation has embarked. We are the undisputed leader of the world. This is a great burden, a burden that has broken great nations throughout history. In the words of the brilliant Lebanese-American scholar Fouad Ajami, it is now America's burden to stand guard in dark places against irrational enemies fueled by hate of what we believe and what we have achieved. We would prefer peaceful co-existence. Despite the violent history of America, it remains slow to anger, even if devastating when finally provoked. But peaceful co-existence is not possible with the radical Islamic groups we pursue, because they, not we, have ruled it out.

Our country must stand guard, not despite the power of our beliefs, but because of them. American democracy and the great liberal ideas of free speech and religion and equality of the races have prevailed over all competing ideologies. Europe's monarchism, Russia's communism, Germany's fascism, Japan's militarism, and China's Maoism all have fallen to America's idealism and, where necessary, to American arms. These competing ideologies were powerful both intellectually and militarily, yet they could not withstand the greater power embodied in our Constitution and our people.

In this sense, then, we have already won. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman points out, it is this great American triumph that caused radical Islam to attack us. They attack not because we are weak, but because we are strong. In the end, their attacks will come to be seen as the pathetic last gasps of a bankrupt perversion of a great religion. Perhaps the greatest beneficiary of the defeat of radical Islamicists will be Islam itself, freed to return to its introspective and serene core.

The defeat of radical Islam is just the first of many challenges we will face in preserving our great victory. We must fight this battle every day. We must cherish and exercise our right to disagree with our leaders and our government and to speak our minds without fear. We should resist the all-too-human temptation to suspect our brown-skinned neighbors and to belittle or demonize those whose faith in God is expressed in ways different than our own. Even in our fear, we should live as though we were fearless. Knowing that we have not yet achieved the full ideal to which we aspire, we should accelerate and recommit ourselves to our aspirations as a nation.

The burden America bears has broken lesser nations. As Americans, we meet our burden when we demand that our leaders live by our principles. We are right to demand a persuasive explanation before attacking Iraq. We are right to rebuke our leaders when they question the patriotism of those who disagree with their policies. We are right to reject restrictions on our freedoms imposed in the name of preventing terrorism. We fight the terrorists when we practice our freedoms, when we are benevolent, when we are humble and grateful. By trying to be all of these things, we fulfill our responsibilities to the world. We fulfill and build upon the legacies of our ancestors. We honor the patriots who fell on Sept.11, 2001 and thereafter. We win, as we always knew we would, the war against terror.