The mix of self-pity and self-congratulation that marked the six-month anniversary of the World Trade Center catastrophe was both surrealistic and sick. In the midst of vows to move on to the ''second phase'' of the ''war on terrorism'' and the noisy celebrations of American patriotism (with talk of using nuclear weapons on the ''axis of evil'' sounding in the background), no one said what is self-evidently true: There has been only a marginal decline in the danger of more terrorism.
No one should be fooled by the elaborate system of harassment of air travelers at the airports around the country. Most of the pawing and groping, the peering at shoes and the breaking of fingernail files is farcical. The farce descends into madness when cretins want to strip-search a 79-year-old nun with a hip replacement and confiscate a Medal of Honor from an 80-year-old war hero (and former governor). None of this stuff is going to stop a determined hijacker who has checked baggage with a bomb in it and boarded the plane.
Like ration stamps during the war, airport ''security'' is for morale purposes. It is an effort to convince people that the government is doing something when in fact it really isn't doing anything. The one person who was detected was the alleged shoe bomber who was spotted by an alert cabin attendant when he tried to put a match to his shoe.
In a few months or perhaps a year, when the government gets its act together, maybe there will be real security. Now air travelers are merely playing the odds. If Congress had resisted the efforts of the airline industry to sink the 1996 Gore report, there might be real airport security today.
The one marginal improvement to safety is the locked cockpit door. It guarantees that no one with a box cutter can take control of a plane and use it as a bomb (as the FBI was warned someone was preparing to do). The Gore report wanted that reform. None of the tragedies of Sept. 11 would have occurred if the airline industry hadn't resisted it. We are at least safe from that particular brand of terrorism. Everything else is smoke and mirrors.
The president told us on the six-month anniversary celebration day that the war on terrorism was entering its second phase. He neglected to say that the first phase did not succeed. Osama bin Laden and most of his top staff are still free (probably hiding under the protection of Pakistanis). The Afghan war has been mostly a failure. Indeed, it eliminated a base for al-Qaida and probably set its plans back, but that too is only a marginal improvement in the safety of Americans.
Bush, who likes being a wartime president, is apparently concentrating his efforts on ''getting'' Saddam Hussein now that he's failed to ''get'' bin Laden. Never mind that Saddam had nothing to do with the World Trade Center destruction and does not seem to be engaged in terrorism at the present.
Our precision bombs could surely eliminate Saddam's ''weapons of mass destruction'' if the CIA could figure out where the facilities that manufacture them are. They can't find bin Laden, however, and it doesn't seem likely they can find Saddam's weapons centers, either. They might want to subcontract the task to the Israelis.
The main reason for Sept. 11 was the failure of American intelligence agencies. There is no reason to believe that the FBI, which has yet to find the anthrax killer, would react any differently to the report from Minnesota about Arabs who wanted to learn how to fly planes but were not interested in takeoffs or landings. They are still the same stumblebums who let Russian spy Robert Hanssen run amok with their secret files.
About all the CIA seems able to do is to provide raw material for Tom Ridge's cute new color-coded alert system. Unless there is deep reform of these agencies (to say nothing of Immigration, which gave permission to the terrorists to change their visas six months after Sept. 11), nothing else really matters. The question remains whether such reform is possible.
Thus for all the flags, all the manic singing of ''God Bless America,'' all the bellicose rhetoric of the president, all the hyper-patriotism, all the elaborate security precautions, all Attorney General John Ashcroft's destruction of civil liberties, the American people are not much safer than they were Sept. 10.