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Preservation of our soul

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 12, 2001

TALLAHASSEE -- Nothing in the nation's experience has prepared the United States of America for the crisis that burst so horribly upon us Tuesday morning. Not even Pearl Harbor, to which it most nearly compares.

On that ancient day of infamy, there wasn't a moment's doubt as to who was to blame or what we would do about it. Apart from the fact that it was a sneak attack, which enraged Americans more than anything else about it, it was a conventional act of war that targeted only military installations, not civilians. We knew what to do about that.

Another important difference was that citizens weren't told how much damage had been done, as Washington didn't want the Japanese to know. So the first response was anger. The second was resolve. The widows and orphans of Pearl Harbor were left to their private grief.

But on Sept. 11, 2001, the world saw virtually all of it as it happened, in real time, with a toll of dead and wounded that will take days if not weeks to compile but which will surely far exceed the 2,388 deaths at Pearl Harbor. Decent people, the vast majority of those watching, struggled feebly to comprehend how any person, let alone any group, could be so profoundly, malignantly evil. Beyond the monstrous cruelty of conscripting four planeloads of innocent people in their kamikaze attacks -- imagine the panic, the terror, the despair aboard those aircraft -- the purpose was simply to kill as many people as they possibly could.

Only a nuclear weapon could have killed more.

I don't have much doubt that Washington will figure out soon enough who is to blame and that some terrible retribution will follow.

The more important questions are not what lasting harm we will visit upon the terrorists, but what permanent damage they hoped to do to America, and whether we will let them.

That choice is ours. We cannot restore the dead, but we can preserve the soul of America

The enemy targeted us, I suspect, less out of some conventional Middle Eastern or Balkan grievance, than out of a profound, elemental hatred for all things democratic and Western. The United States epitomizes both. Turn the United States into a defensive, paranoid police state, and it is no longer a democracy. The enemy would count that as its ultimate victory even if it kept them from ever taking another American life.

The country essentially shut down Tuesday. That was rational and prudent, but it can't continue. When the nation's business resumes, it will obviously have to be with an attentuated sense of security, but we must not let panic overwhelm common sense.

"The terrorists just slapped a security tax on the United States," said Robert Litan of the Brookings Institution, "and we don't have a clue about the price tag."

Money is cheap. Democracy is not. To discern and respect the difference in this crisis will be the ultimate test of the nation's character.

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