The response of most Americans to one of the nation's greatest catastrophes has been heartening. Initial shock and horror have given way to grief and mourning, reflection and resolve. A sense of outrage still pervades the land but one that is tempered for the most part by respect for our fellow citizens of all ethnicities and religions.
As Knoxvillians return to work this week, I believe they mostly share a heightened sense of unity and purpose: We all must carry on and cannot let acts of terrorism, however heinous, undermine our economy, our society and our way of life.
Yet there are other emotions still at work that must be kept in check, lest they compound the threat to everything we most cherish. Foremost among these are fear and vengefulness.
Fear is only natural in the wake of a disaster of almost unthinkable proportions in this country. But the unthinkable has suddenly become thinkable, even probable, of recurrence at some point and probably in some other form. Terrorists who were diabolical enough to carry out the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon seem capable of perpetrating almost anything, including release of biological and chemical agents, even nuclear devices. While it is easy to say they must be rooted out, the likelihood of eradicating all such malefactors for any length of time seems dubious.
So the public must steel itself to live in a threatening environment, and there's really nothing new about that. Californians live every day with the threat of an earthquake and the knowledge that the "big one" will strike someday. No manner of strikes against terrorist cells in the Arabic and Islamic world is going to keep another Timothy McVeigh from springing up in our midst or prevent another Columbine.
The secretary of transportation's airport security mandates may serve to allay some set of people's fears of flying in the short run, but in the long run they represent encroachments on our way of life. Does anyone think that closing down the short-term parking garage at McGhee Tyson Airport (because it's within 300 feet of the terminal) is going to prevent the sort of car bombings that hit our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania or our barracks in Saudi? And if we're shutting down garages at the airport, how about the garages at the City/County building? And what about security at Neyland Stadium? Banning small planes toting banners isn't going to stop a suicide bomber bent on its devastation.
Even bomb threats have to be treated with sangfroid. Evacuation of a building in the face of a threat is almost certain to produce more of same from anarchists or kooks. This is not to say that they should be treated lightly, but they cannot be allowed to disrupt our lives and livelihoods.
The rush to vengeance against the perpetrators of last week's attacks is also natural but it, too, is fraught with peril. Osama bin Laden gets singled out as the prime suspect, and it would be wonderful to think that we could lay hands or turn guns on him and his cohorts in short order. Yet it's been nine years since the 1992 bombing of the World Trade Center in which he was implicated, and he's been able to elude us ever since (including the missile strikes that former President Clinton launched against his base following the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa).
Public opinion polls show that a U.S. majority now favors massive military action against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan if it fails to turn him over to us, which presumes that it could if it so desired. Yet it was Russian military intervention in Muslim Afghanistan that galvanized bin Laden's al queda movement in the first place. One shudders to think how many more converts to its jihad brand of terrorism a U.S. invasion of Afghanistan would yield at this point.
From what little I know of it, al queda consists of many different cells of terrorism in many different countries, by no means all dependent on bin Laden. When President Bush stresses that it may take many months or years to root out all of them, I'm with him all the way. But when his deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz talks about "ending states who sponsor terrorism" I fear a type of warfare that will sow the seeds of more terrorism than it stops.
Patience is much needed on the homefront. This is not the kind of war against a nation that can be won with military might alone, as the Gulf War was in 1991. Rather, it must be fought with a view to winning the hearts and minds of people, which we so abysmally lost sight of in Vietnam. Securing the allegiance of moderate Arab states and Muslim clerics is crucial to success.
We should demand a strengthening of national security, whose lapses allowed so many individuals bent on devastation to infiltrate our borders and attend our pilot training schools undetected. But we must do so in ways that do not compromise our basic civil liberties. At the same time, we should all try to strengthen our own intelligence gathering about an enemy that considers the United States to be the Great Satan whose destruction is an end that justifies any means. Massive retaliation may be exactly what this enemy is seeking, to rally more adherents and subvert more regimes to its cause.
Above all else, though, we should keep on doing what each of us does best in our diverse economy and society. September 11, 2001, will be indelibly imbedded in our memory just as much as December 7, 1941, was to our parents and grandparents. But it should serve to spur us on to even greater accomplishment and commitment to this community's well being.