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Jewish World Review Sept. 12, 2001 / 23 Elul 5761

Philip Terzian

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Succumbing to fear -- IT IS fair to say that nothing quite like this has happened within America since the Civil War.

The United States has been attacked in the recent historic past. The battleship Maine was blown up in Havana harbor, probably by Spain, in 1898. The Mexican bandit/revolutionary Pancho Villa crossed the border in 1916 and murdered several citizens in New Mexico. The Japanese sank an American vessel, the U.S.S. Panay, on the Yangtze River in China in 1937. In 1941 the Japanese bombed the naval base at Pearl Harbor in the U.S. territory of Hawaii, killing some 2,300 Americans.

There was, in a sense, a certain clarity about those events. The United States and Spain were on the verge of conflict over Cuban independence. Mexico was in the midst of a brutal and protracted civil war. The Japanese were ravishing China, and seeking to establish a Pacific empire.

But in the years since World War II there has been less clarity. Individual Americans were killed in the course of the Cold War -- intelligence agents murdered by the KGB, soldiers shot in the Korean demilitarized zone -- but the world's nuclear arsenals deterred such incidents from sliding into conventional conflict. In the past decade there have been attacks against U.S. targets -- on servicemen in Europe, on American embassies, against the U.S.S. Cole docked off Yemen -- but it has not been so easy to retaliate effectively, or even to know what to do. Some of the men who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993 were brought to trial and convicted; but those who gave the orders and supplied the weaponry remained unscathed -- may even, indeed, have orchestrated this week's final destruction of the Manhattan landmarks.

It is easy to understand the anger and horror that attend this catastrophe. The United States has been injured, and left gasping for breath. Americans are unaccustomed to the sort of carnage that has been visited upon much of the rest of the world at one time or another, and believe themselves, thanks to geography, largely immune from lethal attack. Now we know better. "It is a fearful thing," as Woodrow Wilson once said, "to lead this great peaceful people into war." But the great, peaceful people of America, when aroused, will do what they must.

The question is, what? It will be remembered that when the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed in 1995 (168 killed) the authorities grabbed the first Arab they could find at the local airport. He was lucky not to be lynched. The fact that the perpetrator in Oklahoma City turned out not only to have been a native-born citizen named Timothy McVeigh, but a "decorated veteran" of the Persian Gulf war, must give us pause. It is entirely too easy to ascribe guilt to the less popular, or least amenable, among us in the family of nations. Or, for that matter, to use this tragedy to advance political interests. Six years ago a connection in the media was drawn between McVeigh and the new Republican majority in Congress, a connection President Clinton deftly exploited.

Now, the stakes have been raised. It is evident that whoever is behind this attack enjoys considerable resources and, perhaps, the protection of a sovereign state. It is no small achievement to have killed so many blameless people, to have paralyzed the nation's financial capital, to have shaken the U.S. military establishment, and to have shattered the nerves of Americans. If and when the author of this outrage is identified, he should suffer the full consequences of American fury. That is President Bush's responsiblity, and his reputation will rise or fall on his actions.

But anger cannot distort whatever lessons we learn. When the United States retaliates, we must be certain about the identity of the target, and not strike out in haphazard rage. Enough innocent blood has already been shed. This is a moment to exercise resolve, not indulge an emotional convulsion. Moreover, this remains a free society, and one of the realities of freedom is that concerns about security cannot supersede our basic liberties. An infinite number of consultants, metal detectors, background checks, hidden cameras, armored checkpoints and no-fly zones cannot guarantee that a suicidal killer can be stopped, or that harm cannot be inflicted when we least expect it.

There is a certain risk in an open society, but the greater risk is succumbing to fear. This wound that has been inflicted will heal. If we summon the strength and resources to bind the wound, and to punish the guilty, we will have struck a blow from which no terrorist can recover. But if we find ourselves imprisoned by dread, and determined to change the way we live in the interests of security, then the terrorist -- alive or dead -- will have won a great victory.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, The Providence Journal