We have taken a great wound, we Americans, and our first task is to rescue survivors if that is still possible, to grieve and to remain alert until we better understand what happened to us. The time will come soon enough to sort out the causes, who delivered this vicious attack and how we hold them accountable, then to assign official blame at home, if the facts require it. We should also begin deeper arguments about the political meanings, the failures in our own leadership and the role our government has chosen to play in the world. But right now, our minds are swimming in the same ghastly images. Dazed men and women, covered with dust, streaming north on foot from lower Manhattan. A TV videotape replaying the fiendish plot in which commercial airliners are turned into suicide bombs. The smoldering ruins at the Pentagon. The lost skyline in Manhattan. The bolt of fear: Where are my children? Questions spun through our heads, but all the circuits were busy. Terror leaves its sickening residue, the swooning sense of helpless vulnerability. That is the purpose.
One odd privilege of being American is that we have had very little experience with such blindsiding assaults, at least in modern times. Other countries became the battlegrounds, not ours. Other peoples were schooled in stoical expectations, knowing that the worst can happen and sometimes does, but not Americans.
It is essential now to stick to hard facts, not fearsome shadows or injured hubris (or the xenophobic hatreds already in the air). Yet the intelligence agencies that had not a clue what was coming were claiming within hours to have proof of who organized the attack. And figures like Henry Kissinger are already calling for an open-ended war against terrorist organizations–regardless of whether any evidence establishes their culpability.
Civil liberties, already under attack, were immediate targets. Legislators talked of granting the FBI and other agencies broad new powers–this despite the fact that the FBI is already intercepting a record number of calls. Some called for wholesale closing of US borders. On Tuesday, only Senator Joseph Biden, himself a key supporter of the noxious Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty bill of 1996, to his credit stood on the Capitol lawn to suggest that any incursions on civil liberties should be resisted.
After the dead are properly mourned, after we have reliably established how this happened and who was responsible, then we Americans must undertake a most difficult conversation among ourselves. Yes, we should speak with one voice expressing our compassion and outrage, but we need a multiplicity of voices, a true national debate about what sane national security means in the twenty-first century. The paradox is that if or when we engage in brutal reprisals, they will serve a cathartic function for the vast majority of justifiably outraged Americans. But let us not delude ourselves; they will inflame rather than deter. In the long run, the only way to deal with international terrorism is to build and support international institutions toward that end.
This is a pivotal moment when we should reconsider our posture toward the world and examine the true burdens and obligations of acting like an empire awesomely more powerful than any others and answerable to no one. To maintain international order, our military occasionally intervenes in what, for us, are meant to be casualty-free wars. Our economic order claims to spread democracy by imposing its own self-interested rules on poorer nations. Yet, as we learned and should have already understood, this great country is vulnerable too, beyond imagination. Whoever planned this vicious attack must have calculated that the United States is at a fragile juncture, its great prosperity sinking and uncertain leaders in power. They probably intended an unraveling, both of financial markets and the national confidence.
It may seem trite to say so, but the calamity does test our character. If we are shrewd about ourselves and truly brave, citizens will not yield to hysteria–or accept draconian new laws that undermine civil liberties–but will force these difficult questions into the political debate.