"Prior to 9/11," he continued, "frankly, we had dropped our guard." The United States relied on military might and the vast expanse of the oceans to protect the country, and that fostered complacence, argued Cohen.
He said that the first task of the government should be to provide security for its people.
"Government has a role to protect us," he stated. But he noted that the question of civil liberties will be an unavoidable issue. "We're going to have a real challenge to balance our freedom and security. You start to weigh and calibrate in terms of 'what if.' "
He used the example of microchips implanted into people for the storage of medical information as a potential problem situation. In a situation like Hurricane Katrina, where many people lost everything, he argued that such a device would be useful. But the opportunity for misuse of such technology could also threaten civil liberties.
"Technology is neutral," said Cohen. "It has no heart; it's all head."
'The Long Twilight Struggle'
Cohen argued that the "war on terror" is a misnomer. He explained that the term "war" gives the indication of a clearly identified adversary and the prospect of a terminal point to hostilities. But he noted that he prefers John F. Kennedy's phrase, which at the time referred to the Cold War — "the long twilight struggle."
"You're never going to know when it's over," said Cohen, adding that the country needs to do what it takes to survive.
He advocated defeating terrorism through law enforcement, intelligence and special-operations successes. He also recommended the creation of a domestic intelligence agency, similar to Britain's MI5 — a proposal that has been rejected by the U.S. government.
"The organized military will come last, in my opinion," he said.
"You come big, and you come strong," Cohen said, referring to military operations. He noted that it's much easier to pare back forces than to try to build them up once an engagement has begun.
"We have to be able to project power," he said. "We also have to be able to use it for humanitarian purposes."
He gave the example of Indonesian perception of the United States before the tsunami in 2004. He said that 70 percent of Indonesians had an unfavorable view of the United States, but after American warships off the coast led a massive humanitarian relief effort, the opinion had completely flipped; some 70 percent of Indonesians had a favorable view of the United States.
"I think holding up a lamp of liberty has always been our best selling point," said Cohen.
He acknowledged that the United States has had shameful moments in its history, but that its ideals are ones that could inspire other nations.
Safer or Not?
After Cohen spoke, Anne Gordon, the managing editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, moderated a panel discussion on the main question of the night: whether the country is indeed safer after the attacks of Sept. 11.
Kristen Breitweiser, a Sept. 11 widow and author of the new book Wake-Up Call, said that she "wanted to make sure that there was an investigation into 9/11," to make sure that lives were not lost again. "When there are answers and they are shielded from us, it breeds unease," she said. Breitweiser added that the government response to Hurricane Katrina was evidence that the security situation in the United States had not improved.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former director of the Middle East Initiative at the Project for the New American Century, said "it's a little early to judge the security after 9/11," but he did acknowledge "a qualified yes" to the issue of improved safety.
Joseph Cirincione, senior vice president for national security at the Center for American Progress, used the results of a study from Foreign Policy magazine to answer the security question. The magazine surveyed 116 terrorism experts: one-third of them conservative, one-third moderate and one-third liberal. Eighty-five percent responded that the United States was not winning the war on terror; the percentage was similar in each group, regardless of political affiliation.
When asked what the best policies for winning would be, the experts' top two replies were reducing dependence on foreign oil and increased funding for the State Department.
"This is a diplomatic war," attested Cirincione.
In all the vast complexities and nuance of national security and foreign policy, Cohen best summed up the situation: "We have to come to some sort of reconciliation. There are no absolutes."