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Jewish World Review Oct. 8, 2001 / 21 Tishrei, 5762

Chris Matthews

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The American war -- NEW YORK -- The "J" train headed uptown in relative silence. The only sound on the crowded Manhattan subway was the solitary moan of a sax some guy was playing near the middle doors.

I had just come from Ground Zero, where the barricades north of the demolished World Trade Center squeeze this skinny limb of an island like a tourniquet.

Yes, it's as if the city's bloodflow has been blocked. People mill in congested streets turned back on themselves by the barricades, the gawkers, and beyond them, a specter as rare as it is immense: war ruins.

For the first time in our collective national memory, Americans know the sight, smell, sound and tremble of what it's like to be on the punishing end of battle. We have been hit, hurt and, say what we will, humbled. The snap left in our strut after Dallas and Saigon has vanished.

Remember how we loved Muhammad Ali bragging that he could "float like a butterfly and sting like a bee"?

Today, nearly a month after Sept. 11, we are like Ali in the weeks after that first, losing fight with Joe Frazer 30 years ago. Like Ali, we know what it's like to have taken a beating. It hurts just to breathe. And it shows in our collective face.

"We're going through a very difficult time with so many funerals and so many people affected," Mayor Rudolph Guiliani told me later. "There probably isn't anyone in the city that hasn't been directly affected by this."

The question now is how to carry out justice toward those who attacked us without stirring further spin-offs of hatred, terrorism and death.

New York's Cardinal Edward Egan says we Americans need to "examine our consciences." Was there something we did to stir the conspirators and killers of Sept. 11?

That examination could be a useful exercise, not because it shifts blame to the victim, but because it lights the way to the right sort of retaliation. If our attack on Osama bin Laden incites more Islamic hatred against the United States and the West, we will be doing his work for him.

The greatest danger in the days and weeks ahead is that we "Americanize" this war. Led by the best intentions, we could find ourselves making enemies we never sought, stirring a grand nationalism where we sought to punish a particular evil: terrorism.

The death this week of former South Vietnam President Nguyen Van Thieu reminds us we have made this mistake before.

In 1965, we sent 100,000 combat troops to Saigon. We did it for the best of reasons, to save a country from Communist takeover. The result was to convert a civil war into a war against U.S. "imperialism."

Today, Vietnam recalls that horror as the "American War."

We made the same mistake in 1983 when we entered Beirut under the self-deluding banner of "peacekeeping." The enemy saw us as something more. After a car-bomber exploded our Marine barracks, leaving 300 dead, we left as something less.

We made the same mistake a decade later on the horn of Africa. Entering Somalia as food-bearers, we left carrying our fallen, after we watched from home as the locals dragged a body of our soldier through the streets.

Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, has warned us this could easily happen again. We enter Afghanistan to catch a terrorist and destroy his network. We depose the Taliban, install an 86-year-old ex-king, then spend years propping up his government.

We morph, in the minds and hearts of the Afghans and their neighbors, into a crusading army come to invade and desecrate the land of Islam.

If we Americanize the war against Islamic terrorism, we'll lose it.

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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