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Jewish World Review Nov. 6, 2001 / 20 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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Consumer Reports

Time to stand and fight --
'YOU ladies can go into the kitchen and get a carving knife. You can each take a dead German with you." Those were Winston Churchill's instructions to Pamela Harriman, then his 20-year-old daughter-in-law, in June 1940, when she was living at 10 Downing Street and asked what she should do if, as seemed likely in those terrible weeks, German troops landed in England and reached the streets of London. Churchill was the head of government of the mightiest empire in the world, but he knew that a time might come when citizens must fight on their own.

Many Americans have come to the same conclusion, starting with the heroes on United Flight 93.

Their plane had been hijacked, and from conversations on cellphones and GTE Airfones they learned of the World Trade Center attacks. They knew that they were almost certainly going to die. But they fought back. They had little time. The second World Trade Center tower was hit at 9:03. United 93 turned east at 9:35 and headed toward Washington. Before 10 a.m., Todd Beamer, Mark Bingham, Tom Burnett, Jeremy Glick, Lou Nacke, and perhaps others attacked the hijackers. "Are you guys ready? Let's roll," a GTE operator heard Beamer say. We do not know exactly what happened. But the plane went down in rural Pennsylvania and did not crash into the White House or the Capitol.

Today we find ourselves under attack on the home front. Anthrax has been mailed to the offices of public offi- cials and media organizations. Four people have died. Attorney General John Ashcroft told us on October 29 that we might face another attack within a week. Reporters at White House briefings ask pleadingly how people are to follow the president's advice to be alert and also go on with their normal lives. Opinion writers bemoan the government's response to the anthrax threat.

Learning to go on. But citizens of great powers have been attacked on the home front many times in the past. In his history of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides tells how Athens, with its great naval empire spreading out over the Aegean and Mediterranean seas, could not prevent Sparta's armies from advancing to Athens's city walls. Britain in 1940-45 and the United States during the Cold War were vulnerable to devastating attacks from the air. But Athenians, Britons, and Americans learned how to go on with their lives while remaining alert to the threats they faced.

One of the lessons of this war is that citizens cannot always rely on experts and sometimes must act on their own. The experts are not always right. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not think that anthrax could escape from sealed envelopes. Now we know better, but the mistake was understandable given science's limited knowledge of anthrax. The history of public health is a history of learning from trial and error. The heroes of United Flight 93 did not have time to seek advice from counterterrorism experts or professors of conflict resolution. But they did have time to reject the advice experts had dispensed to victims of past hijackings to cooperate and let the hijackers have control. They faced a horrifying situation that no one had anticipated before September 11. They made the right decision and acted.

So we must all if the attack falls on us. The home front cannot be perfectly protected by public officials, and experts cannot perfectly prepare us for new threats. A proud, determined citizenry must also do its part. The tone too often heard in the media is one of moaning, grousing, a yearning for absolute assurance that nothing bad will happen. But that assurance can- not be given.

Churchill understood this many years before the Battle of Britain. In 1899 he wrote The River War, an account of the 1898 war against the dervishes, Islamic fundamentalists in Sudan, in which he participated in the last British cavalry charge. At one point, he writes, "I hope that if evil days should come upon our own country, and the last army which a collapsing Empire could interpose between London and the invader were dissolving in rout and ruin, that there would be some, even in these modern days, who would not care to accustom themselves to a new order of things and tamely survive the disaster." These words were penned by a 24-year-old man who as a 65-year-old prime minister in June 1940 would tell the House of Commons, "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."

Churchill understood, as we are coming to understand, that free societies are always exposed to attack and that there are times when free citizens must fight on their own. Times when we may have to respond as Todd Beamer did: Let's roll.

Michael Baone Archives

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2001, Michael Barone