That’s the question all Americans should be asking. Our nation, the world’s largest and most powerful liberal democracy, is at a watershed moment in her history. How it responds to Tuesday’s horrific attack will change the world. What shall we do?
Whatever actions we take, they must be done in full awareness of all of their possible consequences. Our nation has suffered, and its people are enraged. But a response motivated by anger and the desire for revenge is certain to produce only more suffering. America must react strongly, but also wisely. Whatever we do, it should be done with the goal of peace in mind, not further conflict.
As of this writing, the persons responsible for Tuesday’s attack remain unknown. There is much speculation, most of it centered around Osama bin Laden, leader of a group believed responsible for numerous terrorist actions, including the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. And there’s every reason to believe that Tuesday’s attack has something to do with the Middle East and the U.S. role there. But nothing is known with certainty.
The president and other leaders say we are at war, but that’s an unfortunate term to use. Terrorism is not war. War is about physical conquest; terrorism is about psychological intimidation. War has clear enemies; terrorism operates in the shadows. Whoever perpetrated this horrible deed, this cruel attack on innocent people, must be found and brought into the light. But we are not at war.
In fact, we don’t have to fight anybody to win in this struggle. All we have to do is resist the urge to respond in the way the terrorists want us to respond. They want us to react with fear and anger. They want to suck us into a cycle of violence and retribution. They want us to be so afraid that we curtail our personal freedoms and become a security state. They want us to lose confidence in our government and our economy. If we do what they want, they will have won.
The United States is deeply involved in the affairs of the world. Our military has played a role in numerous conflicts. We are the world’s greatest supplier of military weapons. Our money is used to support many governments that are under attack. Some of those governments have repressed their own citizens. We are not innocent players on the world stage. It’s no wonder that some people look upon us as enemies.
Heretofore we’ve been protected from retribution by two vast oceans and the world’s mightiest military force. Now we know that distance and might are not enough. As one TV commentator put it, our very greatness—as symbolized by the huge World Trade Center—is what makes us vulnerable to terrorist attack.
Now we know. How we respond will determine the very nature of our liberal democracy. If our goal is solely to lessen the threat, our democracy will suffer. Our freedoms will suffer. We will live henceforth in a prison of our own making.
And if, in punishing the perpetrators of these terrible deeds, we too kill innocent people, we will surrender whatever moral authority we possess. Right now most of the world sympathizes with and supports the United States in our pain and travail. As one European newspaper headlined, “We are all Americans.” Our challenge is to build on that sympathy and support, to craft a worldwide response to terrorism that at the same time preserves the highest values of democracy.
It can be done. It must be done.