- - Monday, September 10, 2012

Today, the names of those who were lost on Sept. 11, 2001, will be read aloud at memorials in Shanksville, Pa., Washington, D.C., and New York City — 11 years after a morning that introduced many Americans to terrorism and a brutal group known as al Qaeda.

As we move further into a second decade since the attacks, we are more sophisticated about the threats we face. We are no longer breathless about them; we are more knowledgeable and more focused.

We know that we never can eliminate all the risk to us, but we can manage it. We have been doing so over the years by reducing many vulnerabilities inside our own borders. Along the way, we have learned hard lessons from the horror at Fort Hood and the attempted bombings on a Detroit plane and at Times Square — lessons from unspeakable tragedy, close calls and pure luck.

While we are not where we need to be, we are better prepared. We have stumbled at times, but as always, America has overcome and come back. That achievement, coupled with the fact that there has been no other attack since Sept. 11, has come through the courage of our military men and women, the fortitude of many hardworking intelligence, law enforcement and homeland security professionals — as well as the resilience of our citizens and the help of our international friends and allies.

But now we must demand even more from ourselves. The United States has long proved to be an indispensable partner and resource for positive change and the sharing of our democratic values. Other nations look to the United States for leadership and alliance. We must embrace more seriously our responsibility to lead as well, not solely because of what we can do for others, but for the sake of our national security and economic well-being.

Much is at stake. Terrorism has become the tactic of choice for disaffected groups and cowardly nations. Al Qaeda operates with increasing volatility in the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq and, more recently, Syria — and its look-alikes and wannabes dot the globe.

While people across the Middle East and North Africa have risen up in a collective fight for freedom and accountability, many of their hopes have been replaced with uncertainty and massacre.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Vladimir Putin has returned to power. Pakistan and North Korea are testing nuclear weapons, and Iran seeks to build them. China is aggressively using its financial strength to build global relationships and, at the same time, using its military might to intimidate its neighbors. Africa and Central and South America remain enmeshed in long-standing security challenges.

Too much is on the line for the United States to back away from these challenges. What happens in other lands affects the security and economic vitality of our own. We must protect it. To protect it, we must lead, and lead well.

We must stand with freedom-loving people around the world. We must encourage democracy and the rule of law.

We know that military force is an option, but diplomacy and development are also key components of our comprehensive national security strategy. But we must use those components more robustly if we are to be effective.

This is particularly vital as our engagement in Afghanistan transitions to civilian-led programs. We know that impoverished societies are particularly vulnerable to radical regimes — a circumstance that enabled the Taliban to seize power and give safe haven to al Qaeda.

I served with the late Charlie Wilson in Congress, and I think often about the last scene of the movie about his life, “Charlie Wilson’s War.” Charlie had made the case to the Intelligence Committee for resources to support the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in its struggle against the Soviet invasion. After the Soviet retreat, Charlie asked for a few million dollars to build roads and schools that would begin the process of stabilizing the country. He did not get that support.

I wonder about the difference the small amount of resources Charlie requested could possibly have made in providing opportunity for the people of Afghanistan and preventing extremists from taking hold.

We do not know. But more than a decade after Sept. 11, we do know that our role in the world must continue to grow more vigilant. For if we are not strongly engaged on the world stage, others will be, and that will be to our great detriment.

We must never cede our say in the outcome of our own future. We must continue to show the world that America remains strong and resilient — because we are. Eleven years later, we are. With America’s global leadership, we always will be.

Tom Ridge served as a Republican governor of Pennsylvania and the first secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. He is president and CEO of Ridge Global and honorary co-chairman of the Flight 93 National Memorial Campaign.