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Jewish World Review Oct. 1, 2001 / 14 Tishrei, 5762

Nat Hentoff

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An attack on civilization -- SECRETARY OF STATE Colin Powell spoke to the essence of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on Sept. 11. "This was not," he said, "just an assault on the United States. It was an assault on civilization."

One of my daughters has three young children. They live in St. Louis. When Jessica called that day to find out whether I had been in my office, not far from the World Trade Center, when it was blown up, she asked, "How can I explain this horror to the kids? How can I explain how people can do this?" I told her what I would say to my grandchildren: "Everywhere in the world, there are some people so on fire with a belief, a total reason for being, that they can kill others who do not share that belief for the overwhelming purpose of advancing their particular religious or political commands."

We have had such zealots in this country, I would add. Just before the Civil War, John Brown, who would free all the slaves, would also murder anyone, guilty or innocent of involvement in slavery, whom he felt stood in his way. And there is the murderous fringe of the pro-life movement, who betray their own stated belief that all life is sacred by urging the killing -- and sometimes they actually assassinate -- doctors who perform abortions.

And I would tell my grandchildren of the young Palestinians, the suicide bombers, who blow themselves up as they murder Israelis, many of them as young as they are, in the name of Palestinian independence. On the day of the terrorist slaughter of Americans, Palestinians of all ages were dancing in the streets -- rejoicing in the killing of Americans because this country is an ally of Israel.

I would especially tell my grandchildren to avoid losing their respect for all life by abandoning their own humanity when they became part of a "greater" goal that teaches them to regard other people as disposable.

There is something else to be learned from the terrorist attacks on America on Sept. 11. A television reporter -- with bodies on stretchers behind him -- said on that day, "America will never be the same."

But there is another way to consider the long-range effects of that day of horror. Now that we know "national security" is more than a catch phrase, will America again be so captured by fear as to cast a net of suspicion over many of its own citizens? As The New York Times said in an editorial the day after the terrorist war on the city, "The temptation will be great in the days ahead to write Draconian new laws that give law-enforcement agencies -- or even military forces -- a right to undermine the civil liberties that shape the character of the United States."

And a Washington Post poll of Sept. 12 reveals: "two in three were willing to 'surrender some of the liberties we have in this country' to crack down on terrorism." Later, a CBS-New York Times poll said even more of us would yield our rights.

In too many American schools, our history is only fragmentarily taught. How many Americans know of the "Red Scare" of 1919 and the 1920s, when large numbers of alleged radicals, subversives and "Bolsheviks" were rounded up in 33 cities. Without any meaningful chance to defend themselves, some were summarily deported.

And while the phrase "McCarthyism" is still heard, I wonder how many Americans who did not live through Joe McCarthy's reign of blacklisting understand the fear he instilled in many people who, like myself, were as anti-Communist as he was, but who also knew that criticism of his methods could categorize us as "subversives" by the legion of McCarthyites around the country.

Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas used to remind us that the guarantees of the Bill of Rights are "not self-executing." We have to make them work. And in one of our last conversations, Justice William Brennan said, "The framers knew that liberty is a fragile thing, and so should we."

Meanwhile, Arab-Americans are being reviled on our streets by fellow Americans because of the terror attacks. They are now experiencing the fragility of their own liberty -- not by actions of their government, but from stereotyping by other citizens. The Sept. 10 N.Y. Daily News reported, "Two veiled women pushing baby strollers" in an Arab-American neighborhood were surrounded by "angry youths who hurled epithets at them." I'm sure those youths consider themselves patriots.

As Justice Anthony Kennedy has said, "The Constitution needs renewal and understanding each generation, or it's not going to last." This is a crucial responsibility of all of us in a time of national danger.

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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