There are a lot of shared emotions out there right now: grief, disbelief, anger. In our grief, most of us keep a stiff upper lip. Unaccustomed as we are to showing weakness or fear, we try to be strong. In our disbelief, we struggle to understand why so many innocent people died. In our anger, we want justice at a minimum.
Every instant mass media poll and every spontaneous coffee pot conversation tell us there is unanimity in favor of identifying and punishing those who plotted the attacks.
If the plotters are found to be in some remote desert in Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Libya the usual rogue-state suspects I suspect only a few Americans would question the application of "surgical" air strikes. I wouldn't, even though I know the last time we mailed a batch of cruise missiles to Osama bin Laden they destroyed an empty Afghan desert training camp and a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory.
Why would I have no qualms? Because I subscribe to the assertion that last week's acts of terror were acts of war. I do not subscribe to claims the attacks were desperate acts by victims of capitalism, military bullying or environmental degradation.
Most of the terror thrown our way comes from the Middle East and results from U.S. support for Israel. That area's Arab and Islamic countries could have accepted Israel's nation status anytime in the last half-century. As long as even one of its Arab neighbors seeks to prevent Israel's existence and as long as others among the Arab nations tolerate their extremist brethren, the United States will be involved and there will be terror and the most extreme terror may qualify as war.
The goal in war is not to capture the enemy army and put it on trial. Those who take up arms against this nation have made a choice. Thus, U.S. air strikes against remote terrorist outposts are acceptable to me.
But what if bin Laden is found to have taken refuge in a neighborhood where he is buffered by hundreds or thousands of innocent people? The obvious question would be whether our lethal surgery can be sufficiently precise to destroy him and spare them. I'd ask a few more questions: Is his presence in the neighborhood an open secret among the residents? Did they welcome him as a hero? Are they consciously offering themselves as the human buffer?
It is hard for me to ignore the fact that thousands of Palestinians rushed into the streets to celebrate Tuesday's attacks on the United States. It is harder still to dismiss them as potential "collateral damage." But I know such neighborhoods also produce the terrorists who serve in the armies of bin Laden, Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement), Hizballah (Party of God), the Abu Nidal Organization, and others.
In terms of punishment, there is the possibility some plotters will be found living in this country. Ironically, if bin Laden or his equivalent were known to be in a desert shack in Nevada, I would want the military or law enforcement to try to capture him rather than apply the no-questions-asked air strikes I would tolerate so easily in Afghanistan.
I have not had to sort through such conflicting feelings in my lifetime.
But this much is clear.
President Bush should take as much time as necessary to apply punishment precisely where it is deserved.
While demonstrating patience, Americans also must demonstrate tolerance. Arab-Americans and Americans who practice Islam are Americans. The tragedies of New York City, Washington, D.C., and southwest Pennsylvania cannot be erased or eased by creating American scapegoats.
Finally, how anyone reacts to the events of Tuesday is an extremely personal and private matter. Some people find peace and comfort in candlelight vigils, wearing ribbons, writing poems and letters, sending or placing flowers, donating money or blood, praying publicly, pledging allegiance to the flag, or singing the national anthem. Others may find their comfort by praying, reflecting or grieving at home. How you respond is your decision.
Steve Reed is Managing Editor of the Empire. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.