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Jewish World Review Sept. 25, 2001 / 8 Tishrei, 5762

Chris Matthews

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An alien threat -- IN 1987, President Ronald Reagan said to the 42nd General Assembly of the United Nations: "In our obsession with antagonisms of the moment, we often forget how much unites all the members of humanity. Perhaps we need some outside universal threat to make us recognize this common bond.

"I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world.

"And yet, I ask you, is not an alien force already among us? What could be more alien to the universal aspirations of our people than war and threat of war?"

The World Trade Center horror is that "alien force." It has united Americans -- not just in New York -- in ways not felt since the Kennedy assassination.

Unlike the horror of Dallas, it has carried a subsequent positive force. Nov. 22, 1963, brought death to a national leader. Sept. 11, 2001, brought life to our sense of nationhood. This feeling is the silver lining to this cloud of gloom. Class, an un-American notion to begin with, has faded for the moment. Firemen, not stock brokers, are the "masters of the universe." Savers and riskers of life, they receive the honor, respect and gratitude they deserve. Race, that backbeat of urban life, seems forgotten as we dig for hope among the wreckage.

"Can you spare a little eye contact?" a beggar asks a well-to-do passerby in a now hopelessly outdated New Yorker cartoon printed just days before the horror. In the streets of today's Manhattan, commuters try, for the first time anyone can remember, to catch each other's eyes.

Rudy Guiliani, the city's mayor, has captured that spirit. A politician with nothing to gain, he found himself, in the aftershock of the horror, with so much to give. Community. Until this tragedy happened, that word seemed foreign to me. Now I understand it.

For years, African-Americans have used that word to convey their sense of unity and togetherness against the cold forces surrounding, controlling, and, too often, repressing them.

Now I feel it. I know that New Yorkers feel it. I can see by the little votive candles set out on street corners, the flags flying from cars, the lapel ribbons on people's chests, that so many others feel it too.

Maybe this feeling will last. Maybe politicians will put some perspective into their attacks on each other. Maybe the "red" heartland part of our map that voted for Bush will feel less distance from the "blue" bi-coastal parts that voted for Gore.

And, yes, maybe things will break bad. Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who represents Berkeley, was the lone vote against giving the president wide powers to track down the terrorists. For this act, she has gotten death threats.

This is the dark side of national unity. Web site agitators of the left and the right use the horror to sell their creeds, punish their enemies, enforce their ideological decrees. Hate-mongering clergymen do worse. Having no more premonition of this hell in New York than the least spiritual among us, they offer a shameless litany of "I told you so's." They use the fire to warn of more.

The dividers should be the last to speak. The great truth this tragedy has shown us, the great revelation, if you want to call it that, is that which old romantic Ronald Reagan imaged that day before the United Nations. He proclaimed that once we saw a true enemy -- in this case, crazed religious zealotry -- we would unite as one.

John Lennon could not have said it better: See ourselves as one.

JWR contributor Chris Matthews is the author of Hardball. and hosts a CNBC show of the same name. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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