CAPE ELIZABETH – All Americans have good reason to pause and commemorate the 10th anniversary of the infamy that was Sept. 11, 2001.

Mainers have an even greater connection than most, and we continue today to face a number of unique risks that bear renewed scrutiny.

Most people would understandably associate 9/11 with New York City, or perhaps the Pentagon, or Shanksville, Pa.

But we should never forget where the leader of those terrorists began his day 10 years ago: in a South Portland motel, where his team stayed overnight before executing their deadly hijacking operation in the skies above Manhattan.

Mohammed Atta chose our area to launch his operation for an obvious reason — an out-of-the-way, largely easygoing place like Maine seemed easier to penetrate than the sophisticated security nets of metropolitan areas like New York or Boston.

(Although the hijackers’ actions would not have raised alarms anywhere in the privately operated systems that preceded the Transportation Security Administration.)

Today, Maine continues to face an unusual array of homeland security challenges, including thousands of miles of Atlantic Ocean coastline, a thickly wooded international land border, critical national defense industrial activities, several highly active airports, freight and passenger rail access and seaports hosting every type of maritime visitor from Sunfish to cruise ships.

Given the laundry list of risks and potential threats present in our post 9/11 world, counterterrorism and homeland security experts are often asked: What is the biggest threat America faces?

The technical answer will frequently change, based upon the latest intelligence regarding strategy and tactics, techniques and practices of our enemies. But the most persistent danger is our own complacency.

Americans are not known for their attention spans. Yet our adversaries exhibit remarkable patience and the discipline of true zealots.

The intelligence community, the secretary of Homeland Security, the White House, the attorney general and FBI all agree: The threat to our nation continues.

The capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the deaths of Osama bin Laden and a string of al-Qaida leaders make good headlines.

But we are not engaged in a Hollywood western, where the cowboy hero shoots the Big Chief off his horse and the battle ends.

Our current enemies are widely distributed, not a strictly hierarchical army, able to move around the world in asymmetrical ways and sometimes as lone wolves.

So, what are we to do? We cannot string yellow crime scene tape from Seattle to Sagadahoc and shut down our country.

We cannot discard our precious, hard-won American constitutional rights and freedoms.

Instead, we should do what citizens around the world have done since cavemen formed the first villages: Pay attention, participate and know whom to notify when something looks out of place.

Homeland security is not a DHS mission, nor an FBI mission, or even solely a federal responsibility. It is a national mission, to be shared by all of us.

Which is not to say that we all need to become Jack Bauers or James Bonds. We do, however, need to stay alert to our surroundings. We need to simply pay attention and know whom to call if we suspect something’s amiss.

That’s alert, not alarmed; involved, not insulated. Or, as the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has been preaching for years: “See something? Say something.”

Some of our biggest counterterrorism successes have been originated by street-smart citizens, not supposed security “experts.”

The Washington, D.C., snipers killed 10 people and terrorized the region in 2002 before a truck driver — a citizen paying attention, remembering the details — spotted their beat-up Caprice parked in a rest area and called police.

Plans by radicals to kill as many American soldiers as possible at Ft. Dix, N.J., were thwarted in 2007 after a Circuit City clerk alerted local authorities to suspicious videos the suspects had asked him to duplicate.

The 2010 Times Square bomber’s weaponized SUV was discovered by two street vendors, not federal agents.

After billions of dollars invested in new agencies, complicated new computer systems and intelligence networks, alert citizens remain our best early warning system of suspicious activity.

On this anniversary, none of us should be complacent. And no one should think “It can’t happen here.”

It already did. 

– Special to the Press Herald