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Jewish World Review April 19, 2002 / 8 Iyar, 5762

Bob Greene

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Could this be the sound
of World War III? | As the pieces of the puzzle begin to come together, forming at last the outlines and details of the portrait that has been building for months, there is not much that is soothing in what we now can see.

What happened in the United States on Sept. 11, what is happening in the Middle East today -- it starts to have a ghastly symmetry. Separate troubles -- that is what we have wanted to believe. But as the puzzle becomes a picture, the illusion of the separateness dissolves.

Put in its most elemental terms, the warning the now-being-completed puzzle issues is this:

The time when Americans could assume that what happens halfway around the world does not necessarily apply to us is over. The time when we could be grateful that it is happening somewhere else is long past.

And by the time the puzzle is finished being assembled -- by the time the uneven borders of the pieces disappear into one large picture -- there will be no mistaking the dark message of that picture.

Sept. 11 -- for all the time we as Americans have spent discussing it, and analyzing it, and mourning over it -- was far more than an attack on the U.S. mainland -- far more than a 21st Century version of Pearl Harbor.

It was that, of course -- but it was more.

The suicide bombings in the Middle East, the daily bloodshed, the seeming endlessness of the carnage. . . .

Are we really supposed to assume that it stops over there?

Are we really supposed to tell ourselves that at least it is someone else's problem -- that we as a nation are willing to help, but that at its center it does not involve us?

The chances that someone will devise a way to fly more airplanes into more high-rises in the United States are remote. It could happen -- as we found out almost seven months ago, anything can happen -- but the security precautions now in place diminish the odds.

Yet for us to feel too relieved about that is to assume that the goal of those behind the Sept. 11 attacks was to knock down buildings -- that their goal was to burn high-rises to the ground.

It wasn't. That was their means, not their end.

Their end was to do to us what is probably coming next -- their end was to make us a party to a new war. To serve notice to us that it is not our choice -- that we can no longer look across the waters and think the war is between other combatants.

They have already to a large extent succeeded -- our "war against terror" is a war against an enemy still officially unnamed, at least in the traditional sense of a war declared by the U.S. Congress. We're in it, though -- have been since September.

And is there a law-enforcement official in this country, a religious leader, the owner of a shopping mall or an office building or an amusement park, who has not privately been troubled by one stark thought:

The chances of flying a plane into a building again are tiny -- but the chances for suicide bombers to do here what they have done in Israel are not tiny at all.

It's almost too terrible to think about -- but if we don't think about it now, we'll almost certainly be thinking about it later. We can try to secure the airports until they're sealed so tightly they can barely operate -- but we can't secure the continental United States. It is not possible.

Fifty years ago, American children had nightmares about World War III. We have told ourselves, in the time since, that at least we have avoided that -- at least we have avoided global warfare, with armies in uniforms battling in every corner of the planet.

But maybe we have fooled ourselves. Maybe World War III will not look like the first two -- maybe there will not be uniforms, or armies on the march.

Maybe World War III will look like what we are already seeing -- daily explosions, coming without warning, in places that are not supposed to be combat zones. Maybe this is World War III, this puzzle that is now becoming a recognizable portrait -- maybe this is the face of World War III, and we just don't know it yet, because we were on the lookout for something else.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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