"It is almost impossible even now to describe what actually happened in Europe on August 4, 1914," Hannah Arendt wrote in 1950, in words that also seem to apply, with uncanny aptness, to September 11, 2001. "The days before and the days after the first world war are separated not like the end of an old and the beginning of a new period but like the day before and the day after an explosion…. [That] explosion seems to have touched off a chain reaction in which we have been caught ever since and which nobody seems to be able to stop." The chain reaction was the abrupt, unstoppable plunge into the protracted, unprecedented savagery of the two world wars and the two great totalitarian regimes, Soviet and Nazi, of the century's first half. It's still too soon to know whether September 11 (let us avoid the trivializing, disrespectful notation "nine eleven") will touch off a comparable–or worse–spiral of violence in the twenty-first century. An "explosion" we have definitely had; whether an unstoppable "chain reaction" of violence has been triggered we do not know. Yet already the elements of not one but at least three distinct possible kinds of disaster have appeared with astonishing swiftness.

First (to list them briefly), is the threat of a much wider conventional war. Even as the war in Afghanistan still rages, voices in and out of government are calling for new wars against new countries. The targets and justifications for attacking them shift with dizzying rapidity. The war most often mentioned is one to overthrow the regime of President Saddam Hussein of Iraq. The justification first given was a possible connection to the September 11 attack or the anthrax attack that followed; but when this justification seemed to fade (hard facts are impossible to come by), a new one–Saddam's refusal to let UN inspectors into his country to search for weapons of mass destruction–was brought forward. Next, we were hearing from inside sources that the targets might in fact be Somalia or Sudan. (The attack on Iraq would be considered later.) Meanwhile, other crises are sucked into the vortex. In the latest round of violence between Israel and Palestine, Israel, seeking to associate its own war on terror with the American one, has responded to the suicide bombings by the Islamic organization Hamas by attacking the head of the Palestinian Authority, Yasir Arafat. If this development leads to the collapse or expulsion of Arafat from Palestine and definitively ends hopes for a Palestinian state, it could rouse the fury of the Islamic world against the United States and Israel alike, and bring on the full-scale "clash of civilizations" predicted by the political scientist Samuel Huntington.

Second, the Bush Administration has responded to the terrorist threat with executive measures that some are calling the most serious threat to civil liberties in recent memory. The list already includes a roundup of more than a thousand people without charges; eavesdropping on conversations between terrorism-related suspects and their attorneys; a huge, ill-defined expansion of wiretapping in the United States; and, of course, the creation by presidential order of military tribunals that try and execute noncitizens in secret by majority vote. If, as George W. Bush says, we must not allow terrorists to use our freedom to attack us, then how much less should we destroy our own freedom in order to attack the terrorists? Freedom is not some glittering abstraction that hovers in the air; it is the Constitution and the rights it guarantees to citizens. To lose these will be to lose the war no matter how many terrorists the United States kills in Afghanistan.

Third, looming over all these developments is a threat unknown in 1914–the use of weapons of mass destruction against the United States, by the United States, or both. Osama bin Laden has stated that he possesses nuclear weapons ("as a deterrent"), and Administration sources are telling reporters that there is reason to fear that he may have radiological weapons (which use conventional explosives to spread radioactive materials across a wide area). Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has pointedly declined to rule out first-use of nuclear weapons by the United States at some point in the conflict.

What protection does the world have now against a new chain reaction, in which these dangers will feed on and produce one another? To the people–a large majority, according to the polls–who favor present policy, the protection probably seems adequate, or as good as it can be, but to someone like me, who, as this Letter has made clear, opposes both the war abroad and the inroads on liberty at home, Arendt's description of a world in which events are outrunning understanding and response seems frighteningly current. Neither widening war abroad nor loss of liberty at home nor the danger of mass destruction seems to have stirred a response anywhere near the level of the danger. We seem to be gliding in a kind of glassy calm toward a multitude of horrors. There is incontrovertible evidence–including a shocking series of photographs in the New York Times–that our new ally the Northern Alliance has been executing prisoners of war, but there is little reaction in the United States. Serious allegations have also been made that the Alliance, with the help of American bombers, has massacred hundreds of prisoners in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif. The Administration has shown no interest in discovering the truth. The nation's shock was intense when Americans were killed in the September 11 attacks. But reports that villages have been destroyed by US bombing in Afghanistan go uninvestigated. Asked about the press coverage of the subject, Brit Hume of Fox News commented, "The fact that some people are dying, is that really news? And is it news to be treated in a semi-straight-faced way? I think not." The Administration is clearcutting constitutional protections, but few legislators take an interest.

It's one thing to face possible disasters; another to let them draw near without protest or action, as if in a trance or dream. "Nothing which was being done…no matter how many people knew and foretold the circumstances, could be undone or prevented," Arendt wrote of the earlier period. The question now arises whether an opposition today can find the ground on which to take its stand. Or will "every event," as Arendt wrote of the earlier time, "have the finality of a last judgment, a judgment that was passed neither by God nor by a devil, but looked rather like the expression of some unredeemably stupid fatality"?