The United States marks the fourth anniversary today of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the shadow of an even greater catastrophe wrought by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Americans are now struggling to come to terms with a superpower's failure to do a better job of protecting its people against forces of nature and helping them in the dire aftermath.
Nonetheless, they will be offering thanks in their prayers today that since 9/11 they have been kept safe from further attack, even as terrorists have killed thousands more people - in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe. The US State Department says terrorists mounted more than 650 'significant attacks' last year alone, triple the number the previous year. Nearly 200 were part of the Iraqi conflict.
The devastating attacks using hijacked jets on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon forced the world to confront the danger of international terrorism, but figures like that show the danger has not diminished.
At home the US has set an example by not bowing to the threat. Life has returned as far as possible to normal and the wounds continue to heal. Tough security measures and better use of intelligence have kept Americans safe.
On the other hand, the way in which President George W. Bush has pursued his so-called 'war on terror' overseas has magnified the global risks. The invasion and occupation of Iraq have undermined efforts to combat the al-Qaeda network, responsible for the September 11 attacks. They have bred resentment among Muslims worldwide and helped swell the ranks of terrorist groups.
On the face of it, al-Qaeda has suffered serious blows to its operational capacity, from destruction of training camps in Afghanistan to hundreds of arrests around the world. But this has had the effect of fragmenting it into a worldwide movement of decentralised cells, often homegrown and not strictly speaking al-Qaeda, that is difficult to rein in. An example is the suicide-bomb group that attacked the London Underground and a London bus on July 7.
Homegrown terrorism has triggered a more insidious consequence - erosion of democratic civil liberties. Since the London bombings, Britain and Australia have given stronger powers to security forces, including detention and interrogation of suspects without charges being laid.
In a recent speech, the head of Britain's intelligence service MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller, said the dilemma was how to protect citizens within the rule of law when 'fragile' intelligence about a planned atrocity did not amount to clear-cut evidence sufficient to support criminal charges in the courts.
'There needs to be a debate on whether some erosion of [civil liberties] may be necessary to improve the chances of our citizens not being blown apart as they go about their daily lives,' she said.
Just three days after it commemorates its victims of the 9/11 attacks, New York will be the focus of attempts to make the world a safer place where our liberties will be assured. The city will host the biggest summit of world leaders, designed to overhaul the United Nations for the challenges of the 21st century and tackle poverty - one of the root conditions for terrorism. Proposals include the goals of halving poverty and ensuring universal access to primary education by 2015, a human rights council, curbing the arms trade and defining 'terrorism'. Sadly, its success is in doubt. The US is not convinced about the reforms and talks are continuing over the weekend to build consensus.
For the sake of a multilateral approach ideal to the resolution of conflict, Americans should put aside their disillusionment with the UN, which they see as ineffective and increasingly irrelevant, and give it another chance. The 9/11 anniversary in New York would be a symbolic time and place for them to do it.