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Attack on our twin towers is personal

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By BILL MAXWELL

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 12, 2001


For many Americans, including me, the destruction of the World Trade Center is personal. I have two friends and two relatives who worked in the center. My relatives, one a janitor and one a gift shop stock clerk, had worked there for so many years that I took their presence there for granted.

My friend, novelist Beverly Coyle, who lives near where the Trade Center stood, is safe. I was in her apartment just a few days ago admiring the towers from a window. As for the others, I do not know their fate as I write.

For me, like most other Americans, the towers manifested the best of who we are. I was awed by their physical scale, how they dwarfed everything else around.

The giant structures are familiar icons in movies, news footage and many other images suggesting the nation's economic prowess.

In May, after viewing the center as I rode a Hudson River ferry, I wrote words that I had no idea would have meaning just a few months later: "As the ferry pushed eastward and as the giant twins grew larger and brighter, I recalled that day in February 1993, when Islamic terrorists bombed the complex, killing six and injuring hundreds. . . . Why, I naively asked myself, would anyone want to destroy the Trade Center? Those who attempted to do so were our guests in our land.

"They were in a country that gave them the freedom to come and go as they pleased. In fact, they were free -- probably for the first time in their miserable lives. Why would they come to our country and bomb our building -- not a military target during time of war but a civilian structure that serves the needs of peoples worldwide, including those in Arab nations?"

And so here we are again.

As I write, officials have not announced they have evidence that Islamic terrorists destroyed the Trade Center. If, however, we make such a connection, we as a nation should relearn that we are an integral part of the rest of the world, that conflicts in distant lands -- especially in regions where we are hated -- are our conflicts, too.

Violence in other parts of the world can easily engulf us. We are a prime, and apparently easy, target for terrorists, and we need to rethink how we conduct ourselves in the world arena. Make no mistake, many groups hate us and want to kill us, and we can do very little to change such feelings. We can, however, listen to the warnings and realize that we are vulnerable.

For several months now, our foreign policy in many parts of the world has been a hands-off one. This is not criticism but a reality check. The United States -- the world's only true superpower -- should be using its leverage to help solve the world's conflicts, thus giving terrorists fewer places to hide.

Again, the world's problems are our problems. Massive terror has come to our shores, and life for none of us will ever be the same. A new evil has entered our personal space, and what innocence we enjoyed is dead. The real miracle, as far as I am concerned, is that such attacks have not occurred sooner and more often. In truth, the fear that gripped much of the nation on the night of Dec. 31, 1999, became reality on Sept. 11, 2001.

Who again will visit a national landmark or participate in a large gathering without worrying about personal safety?

My uncle who worked in the Trade Center -- who stayed home ill on the day of the 1993 bombing -- said he felt safe afterward because he did not believe such a thing could happen again. He, like most Americans, had a confidence born of living in a democracy where freedom of movement is part of our national character. My uncle was wrong: The Trade Center was destroyed. And he may have died in it.

The attacks on the towers were attacks on our very way of life. My hope is that as we go about improving security, we do not become a less open society, that we do not curtail the personal freedoms that make us great. Legislators will want to write new antiterrorism measures that are sure to make life more restrictive.

If this happens, we play the terrorists' game. We will do what they want us to do.

The big question now is where do we go from here, as a nation and, just as important, as individuals? Personally, I, like thousands of others, await word about friends and relatives who were in the Trade Center during yesterday's deadly attacks.

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