The blow against the United States has landed. As we go to press, the counterblow is awaited. Those deciding what it will be face a devilish conundrum. A great injury seems to call for a great response–a “response commensurate to the horror,” in the words of Cokie Roberts of ABC News. Unfortunately for the satisfaction of this impulse, a proportional antagonist is not always available. It is a perplexing but inescapable fact of our time that great crimes can be committed by puny forces. The obvious example is assassination–an experience branded in American memory by the assassination of President John Kennedy. The gigantic shock of that event seemed to require a gigantic explanation. The mind recoiled at the idea that a single anonymous person could affect the lives of so many so deeply. Many found their satisfaction in conspiracy theories. The government of the day, however, felt it had to resist these temptations. It was the office of the Warren Commission to tidy up the affair, even at the cost of many overlooked suggestive facts, many unpursued leads. During the cold war, the stakes were judged too high to indulge in endless investigations that might undermine the already tense relations of the two hostile superpowers, ready and able to blow each other up in half an hour.

September 11 also presents a maddening disproportion between cause and effect. To be sure, the assault was not the act of an individual; yet at most a few score were directly involved. Behind them–if current speculation is correct–might be a few hundred potential co-conspirators; and behind them, perhaps, some thousands of active supporters. These forces present a dim, vague target. A direct, immediate response against them cannot possibly be “commensurate” with the horror–not only because they are few but because they are dispersed and hidden. That has left the Administration searching for larger targets, and it appears to believe it has found them in its determination to, in George W. Bush’s words, “make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.” The deliberate erasure of the distinction between perpetrators and supporters obviously has opened the way to an attack on one or more states–targets that, whatever their level of responsibility, would indeed be commensurate in size with the horror. It was in pursuit of such a target, of course, that the United States in effect dispatched a team of Pakistanis to the Taliban government of Afghanistan to persuade it to yield up its “guest” Osama bin Laden, who is suspected of masterminding the attack.

The Taliban have indeed sheltered bin Laden, and an effort to end that support makes sense. However, a military strike against the Taliban or any other regime is full of perils that–hard as it is to imagine in the wake of the recent tragedy–are far greater than the dangers we already face. Civilian casualties, even in retaliation, stir indignation, as we now know so deeply. Anger is the best recruiter for violent causes, including radical Islam. There is a distinct danger of self-fulfilling prophecy. By striking indiscriminately we can create the “commensurate” antagonist that we now lack. The danger takes many forms. In the first place, moderate Muslims who now dislike US policy toward their countries but who also oppose terror may begin to support it. In the second place, by attacking radical regimes we may undermine other, conservative regimes. One is the repressive, monarchical regime of Saudi Arabia, possessor of the world’s oil supplies. Another is Pakistan. Its leader, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, is a military dictator with a tenuous grip on power. His most powerful opponents are not the democrats he overthrew in his military coup but Islamic militants, who honeycomb his army and could, if angered enough by the humiliation of his regime by demands from the United States, possibly overthrow it. Pakistan, of course,has been a nuclear power since May 1998. Will the United States,in its fury at a terrible attack that was, nevertheless, on the “conventional” scale, create a fresh nuclear danger to itself and the world?

It’s rightly said that in the face of the attack, America must be strong. Its military strength is beyond doubt, but strength consists of more than firepower. The strength now needed is the discipline of restraint. Restraint does not mean inaction; it means patience, discrimination, action in concert with other nations, resolve over the long haul. We live, as we have since 1945, in an age of weapons of mass destruction–nuclear, chemical and biological. During the cold war there was one ladder of escalation that led to oblivion. Now there are many. Now as then, escalation is “unthinkable.” It must be avoided at all cost.