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A country gasps, waits for answers

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 12, 2001

Now all the living generations of Americans have a Pearl Harbor.

In New York, the skyline of our greatest city, the symbol of all our economic power and culture, our tallest buildings are struck and collapse into a maelstrom of rubble and dust.

In Washington, the headquarters of the greatest military power ever assembled is attacked for the very first time. It lies burning, torn open -- the smoke of an attack on U.S. soil billowing over the American capital for the first time since 1814.

Somehow, in an amazing stroke, murderers seize American commercial aircraft simultaneously Tuesday morning, pluck them out of the American skies and plunge them into targets of American economic, military and political power.

Sept. 11, 2001.

The cloud that rose over Manhattan dwarfed the Statue of Liberty. She was a speck in comparison.

The day cannot yet be added up or comprehended. Who can know how many are dead? The reports say that men and women clutched each other, screamed, even held hands as they fell or jumped from the World Trade Center into oblivion. Untold numbers of emergency workers died inside as the towers collapsed upon themselves.

Inevitably, in our modern world, the attack unfolded on live television. You could see the towers collapsing before the TV anchors realized it was happening. In terrifying fashion, the events spewed forth faster than we could make full sense of them -- the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, the fourth plane crashing near Pittsburgh, not to mention all the false or spurious rumors.

For a short while we did not, could not, know whether the entire nation was under attack.

Nothing on this scale has ever happened in the United States.

The bombing of a federal office building in Oklahoma City, even the previous attack on the World Trade Center, were acts of madness and high criminality, but we wanted to believe, we hoped, that they were isolated, that something fundamental about America had not changed.

This is different.

This is an act of war against American society.

This is a declaration of someone, somewhere, that the United States does not have a right to exist unmolested within its borders, and that Americans do not have the right to go about their lives safely inside America's borders.

We are a great nation and we cannot be destroyed by terror. This morning, as Americans survey the destruction and decide what to do next, we should remember a couple of things.

One thing is the natural and reasonable suspicion that Tuesday's terror was the work of Islamic extremists. If that is the case, we should remember that "Islamic" is not a synonym for "terrorist," any more than "Christian" is a synonym for "McVeigh." Real Muslims are horrified at murder waged in the name of their religion.

The second thing is that American freedom, as protected by the U.S. Constitution, is exactly what our enemies seek to destroy. The debate between freedom and security in America will now be shoved sharply in the direction of security, and rightly so. But in the debates to come we should still be mindful of how much freedom we are willing to trade away.

The president said on Tuesday, "Terrorism against our nation will not stand." He promised to "hunt down and punish those responsible."

It is hard to imagine, at this point, any extent of action by President Bush that the American people would not support. Our error in recent years has been more toward underreaction than overreaction. Cautious experts in these affairs often urge a "proportionate response."

What, exactly, could be proportionate to this?

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