- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 20, 2001

They say the world has changed, that nothing is as it was before Sept. 11. They're wrong. It is not the world that has changed. It's just that we have started to realize what the world is like. We are still stunned, uncertain, not even ready to gather our thoughts, which keep hurtling down like pieces of masonry from 110 stories up.

We've spent a decade in denial, talking about a New Paradigm, as if things would just go on as they were going on, debating the petty and peripheral, squabbling like children, assuming that terrorism happens only to others, and, oh, yes, conducting occasional theoretical debates about building a defense shield someday. Someday came Sept. 11, 2001.

When the historians write the history of the '90s in this country, they might consider this working title: "While We Slept." Or maybe just "Squandered."

The American secretary of state said this would be the beginning of a long, international campaign to wipe terrorism off the face of the Earth. He didn't appeal for both Americans and their attackers to show restraint. He wasn't having any more of this moral equivalence between victim and attackers, good and evil. He had come awake.

So had the media. The talking heads kept referring to the perpetrators of these acts as terrorists, not "militants," or, my personal favorite as a euphemism for killers of the innocent, "activists." The beginning of wisdom, and the end, is to call things by their right names.

"The events of Sept. 11 have fundamentally changed the way people look at terrorism," Colin Powell said Friday. It certainly seems to have changed the way he looks at it.

"The terrorists behind these atrocities, and those who give them shelter and support, must never know rest, ease or comfort." George Tenet, director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Let's hope so. Let's hope that a week from now the rest of us won't be complaining about how much longer it takes to board an airplane. And that a month from now, we will not have gone back to thinking of terrorism as Foreign News.

Let's hope we will never be the same. Because then we will be inviting the same catastrophe.

The night after the attack, I went out to dinner with old friends. The food and drink were fine, Little Rock's skyline was unchanged, the company a comfort. Nothing had changed. Well, almost nothing. There was no fresh fish on the menu. (The airlines weren't flying.) The owner said he was driving up to St. Louis through the night to pick up a shipment. And, oh yes, somewhere under the rubble not so far away in this country people were dead or dying.

This is what it is like, the thought occurred, in a place like Argentina under Peron or the generals, when violence is always on the periphery of what makes life good, and turns ordinary rituals into sham.

In the haze of history, it was the Good War. The whole country was united, the enemies were identifiable. Adolf Hitler, Hideki Tojo and Benito Mussolini were right there on the posters. Everybody pulled together in pride and sacrifice. We were the Greatest Generation. And today we remember the heroes.

But we've whited out the black marketers, the draft dodgers, the ugly epithets and racial divisions. Every war has its slackers, too, its phony patriots and cheap bullies.

The ugliness has already started. "Schools tell foreigners to stay low," said a headline in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Colleges and universities in the state were telling Arab students not to respond to "snippy little remarks." As if the students had anything to do with all this. As if they themselves hadn't come to this country to learn and prosper and in some way be Americans, too.

In the culture of desert countries, rooted as it is in the nomadic creed out of which came the Hebrew Bible and the Muslim Koran, hospitality is not just a social nicety. Hospitality is a cardinal necessity, a requisite for survival, a virtue like courage on which all others depend, a religious duty. The guest under our roof, like the wayfarer in Abraham's tent, is under our protection. Didn't we Southerners used to understand that? Didn't we once put a lot of store by hospitality, too? Are we really going to so forget ourselves as to turn on our guests?

"These terrorists cannot be true to Islam," to quote the imam of an Islamic Center in Jonesboro, Ark. "Nothing can justify the immoral acts of violence against innocent people." Islam, the sister faith of Christianity and Judaism, is not our enemy. The terrorists who disgraced it have killed and destroyed. Are we going to let them divide us, too?

War breeds not just haters but gougers. There were isolated reports last Tuesday of some gas prices shooting out of the top of the pumps. These people don't deserve to be just despised; they should be publicly shamed.

I heard about one filling station operator who, told to raise his prices, just replaced the phone. What kind of person did they think he was? What kind of American?

As for the hoarders, those who started to form panicky lines at the pumps, they were creating the very shortage they feared. They need to remember that in war rumor is an enemy, too.

Thanks to the vagaries of time and the U.S. mail, I keep getting letters, magazines and press releases all sent out before Sept. 11, 2001. It's like reading stuff from another era, another world, maybe the 1920s. Or the 1990s. The mail has about it a sense of a world that no longer is, that never really was.

And yet more distant times suddenly seem like now. The 1940s, for instance. And a scene out of the 1860s: The smoking ruins of a village in Virginia just razed by the federals. By the time Stonewall Jackson's famous Foot Cavalry arrived, it was too late. All was ruin. A young soldier approached his general and asked, "Sir, how can we stop this kind of thing?" Thomas Jonathan Jackson looked at the boy and replied: "Kill 'em all."

The world before Sept. 11, 2001, now glows with a wholly imagined security. But as Americans have to learn anew every generation, there is no time After the War. There is only a time Between Wars.

During this long, arduous week of death and destruction, confusion and dismay, as we have just begun to bury our dead, to mourn and be reborn for the long struggle ahead, I kept thinking of a metaphor from a Spanish philosopher. His name was Jose Ortega y Gasset, and his prose remains luminous, clear, serene. You would never guess from it that the man himself had known war, revolution, exile, persecution and the whole range of 20th century advances. He was a gentleman and a scholar, a man of erudition and culture. In essence, this is what he said in one of his essays:

Life is shipwreck, and culture is but the swimming stroke we use to save ourselves. When we forget the danger we live in, culture becomes only a useless ornament. Only when we fully exercise it are we fully alive, struggling and surmounting.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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