- The Washington Times - Friday, September 14, 2001

On TV, two national landmarks — the World Trade Center and the Pentagon — look like the aftermath of "Independence Day" or some other end-of-the-world science fiction epic. But this time the footage is real and it's very frightening.

My friend Michele calls from New York before I can call her.

She's OK. She wants to know how I'm doing. She was riding into Manhattan on the last train out of Brooklyn before they shut the subway lines. As they were crossing the bridge, everyone in her car looked up and saw one of the World Trade Center towers on fire.

Then the second plane hit.

"We all watched it — a train load of New Yorkers — in complete silence," she says. "It was like something out of a Hollywood movie. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Nobody said a word. We just watched the tower fly apart."

Ghastly. Terrorists have accomplished what we Americans hoped we never would see. They have produced a disaster as large in scale as New York City.

Here in Washington it looked like a movie, too. Cars and trucks jammed the roads out of town leaving downtown streets cordoned off near the White House and nearly deserted, except for reporters, lots of reporters and film crews desperately looking for someone to interview.

My 12-year-old son's school calls. He knows my office is near the White House. He is worried about me.

When I ask him how he feels, he says, "Really weird. It's like you see the World Trade Center get bombed in the movies and now it's really happened."

Yes, it has. Terrorists have sent a message, although the meaning of the message is not yet clear. Today's terrorists are too cowardly to claim responsibility for their acts.

Much of the world lives every day with the possibility of being bombed. Compared to them, we Americans have been lucky. Now their war is our war. Someday, somebody probably will make a movie about all of this. For now, we're still writing the script.

What, my son asks, can we do now?

Pray for the dead, I answer, and try to find the culprits who staged this catastrophe. I assure him that we will find the "bad guys" and I hope events will not make a liar of me.

America will try very hard to find the people responsible for this and mete out some sort of justice. I hope we do it in ways that will not make bad matters worse.

"The resolve of our great nation is being tested," President Bush said. "But make no mistake, we will show the world that we will pass the test."

His statement did not match the poetry of Franklin D. Roosevelt denouncing Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor as "a date which will live in infamy," but its message was no less ringing and appropriate.

This massive terror attack tests us in ways the United States has not been tested before. It tests our ability to rally behind an effective counterterrorist war. It also tests our ability to avoid turning against each other while we wage it.

This attack on American soil most likely will not be answered in major military assaults like D-Day or Anzio, but in covert intelligence and counterterrorism measures.

We need to find the culprits and build an effective case to show the world that we have the right suspects. For that, we need effective intelligence work and an absolute certainty of whom we are dealing with before we retaliate against them.

In our haste to avenge Tuesday's deaths and destruction, we also must be careful to go after the right enemy.

And, back home, our anger must not lead us to demonize entire ethnic groups for the acts of a few of their distant cousins.

The incarceration of thousands of innocent Japanese-Americans and the detention of innocent Italians and Germans is a lasting stain on America's World War II record. In recent years, Middle East terrorism has led to bigoted attacks against innocent Arab-Americans. If we allow that to happen again, we will have failed the most important test of all, our ability to preserve the values in America that are worth fighting for.

Pearl Harbor shocked Americans, but it also united us as a nation. Our domestic differences begin to subside in the face of a major national security threat from outside.

Even civil rights leaders at the time decided to put aside their rising movement's agenda and wage a "war on two fronts — against Nazism abroad and racism at home."

That's how we Americans should face the new challenge posed by terrorism. We are a nation comprised of many tribes. But times like these test how truly united we can be behind a common purpose as one American people.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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