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Jewish World Review Dec. 11, 2001 / 26 Kislev, 5762

Chris Matthews

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We're all 'air marshals' now -- IT'S now official: Everyone boarding an American jetliner joins the front lines in the war on terrorism. It comes down to a personal test of courage between you and the hijacker.

Those were the new rules of engagement delivered personally to me last week by the country's Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge. Put bluntly: We're all "air marshals" now.

If you board an American plane, be prepared to defend your country.

"I think while we're somewhat obsessed about getting X number of federal air marshals," the former Pennsylvania governor said, "I think every single able-bodied man or woman, from this point forward, looks at themselves as a potential air marshal.

"I think at the end, regardless of how much technology you use and how you strategize, whether it's checking people into the border or some other situation, you still need some common sense and some intuition and some training.

"You need the courage of individuals to stand up for something bigger than themselves." Ridge mentioned the gallant passengers of United Flight 93, heading from Newark to San Francisco that dread day, who prevented that fourth band of hijackers from reaching their target the morning of Sept. 11. He declared it the national role model for future hijackings.

"I think that is the kind of personal resolve that's magnified across 280-plus million Americans, that says to bin Laden and Al-Qaeda and all the successor organizations and individuals, 'You may threaten us, you may attack us, you may harm us, you may injure us, you may kill us, but you won't prevail. You will not win. Because every American will rise to that challenge.'"

Hearing this from Ridge, a Vietnam combat veteran, confirms what most Americans have known since the day of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. For all the new security procedures, it comes down to what we, the passengers, are ready to do. In the end, it's just us.

It's up to the passengers, Ridge said, the suicide squad. It will be a battle of fists, shoes and laptops against the killers wielding the box-cutters or whatever other potential weapon they've managed to sneak aboard.

Ridge and all the rest of us were taught this noble lesson by the courageous, patriotic passengers of Flight 93.

"We're going to do something," Tom Burnett told his wife over the phone as he and the others prepared to charge the cockpit. They were going to jump the hijackers and keep the plane from hitting its target, which may well have been the U.S. Capitol itself. "Are you guys ready?" Todd Beamer called out after reciting the Lord's Prayer and the 23rd Psalm. "Let's roll."

I doubt there's a person reading this who hasn't thought about what he or she would have done at that horrid moment of truth. Or wonder what he or she will do tomorrow, or the next day, when a similar moment confronts them with life's most basic decision.

Next time it could be a knife or a gun. It could be on a plane, train, subway, tall building or national monument. The question will be the same: Do you have the guts to face it down? Will you have the same grace under pressure as those people who charged the cockpit of Flight 93?

"Now is not the time to back off,'" Ridge declared this Monday as he issued another national alert. "Obviously, the further we're removed from Sept. 11, the natural tendency is to let down our guard. We cannot do that. We are a nation at war." And, as the president's man guarding the homeland put it to me with blunt clarity, "This war is deadly personal."

It's not the fear. It's how we deal with it.

"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil...."

JWR contributor Chris Matthews is the author of "Now, Let Me Tell You What I Really Think". and hosts a CNBC show of the same name. Comment by clicking here.

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