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Jewish World Review Sept. 13, 2001 / 24 Elul, 5761

Jim Wooten

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As in 1941, nation has a united purpose -- ATLANTA | As I was walking down Marietta Street on Tuesday, my mind flashed to a story told dozens of times.

"We had been to Thomaston and were driving back through Atlanta in the late afternoon," my 93-year-old mother-in-law recounts. "We saw the crowds gathered" on the corners near the newspaper offices. "We stopped and bought a newspaper and that's how we found out. It was Dec. 7, 1941."

That account always preceded another that told of everyday lives forever changed, of a nation coalesced by a single act of barbarism. It is, in the details that follow of ordinary people transformed to common purpose by a shared experience, the beginning of the story of The Greatest Generation.

I relish the story I never tired of hearing. As a nation, we were almost there once in my lifetime. The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was an incomprehensible act of savagery.

But the perpetrators were so insignificantly small, their act of terrorism so mentally deranged, that their crime brought grief and national angst but did not move us to national purpose.

This is different. It is, against all of us, an act of war. These generations cannot be the same again. For post-Vietnam Americans, innocence is gone.

The first and greatest tragedy, of course, is to the thousands of families directly affected by this planned, rehearsed and coordinated attack on America. The wider tragedy is that the frolicking, carefree days of the national summer are over, our assumed security breached, our cherished democracy violated. Innocence lost.

The generations that followed those who stood at Normandy and in North Africa have had as their legacy our freedom from fear. The united purpose and sense of duty of those men bought a half century of national security, during which the American economy produced the freedom from want that allowed us to indulge without obligation.

The fact is, as we all know and on this day affirm, some principles and some obligations are non-negotiable. As Ronald Reagan said on Omaha Beach on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, there are some things worth dying for.

"One's country," he said, "is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it's the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man."

He said to the veterans standing there, and it should be true as well for all of us, that he would be willing to fight tyranny when called upon.

In a single day, in a single coordinated barrage of terrorism directed at American innocents and at the symbols of national authority and commerce, Americans are transformed to purpose, just as they were on that Sunday morning almost six decades ago.

We do not yet have a target, nor an identified enemy. But we do now have a purpose worth dying for. Weep for innocence gone. Resolve at whatever the cost to those now living that our children and grandchildren will abide in a world where terrorists do not hijack innocents to cause the death of innocents.

This generation has never known what it would value more dearly than life itself. After Tuesday, we do.

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© Jim Wooten