E.J. Dionne: To go on being Americans

September 14, 2001

Terror is designed to paralyze. It succeeds when a country loses confidence in itself -- when it gives up what it values most. “The resolve of this great nation is being tested,” President Bush declared. Indeed. But how do we define resolve?

We should resolve to catch and punish the terrorists -- and to punish those who harbored or trained them. We should discover whether we could have known that this was coming, and how we might be warned the next time.

But our central resolve must be to go on being Americans, to remain a people who cherish our liberties and never allow a small, mad group to push us into questioning the value of freedom.

That thousands -- firefighters and office workers, stockbrokers and janitors -- are buried under concrete and steel from an act both evil and insane provokes rage. It prompts the desire to do anything to avenge, to prevent, to protect. “When you’re in this type of conflict,” Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott said Wednesday, “when you are at war, civil liberties are treated differently. We cannot let what happened yesterday happen in the future. We’re going to have to be prepared to take whatever action is required.”

Of course we cannot let this happen again. But protecting rights cannot be seen as a sideshow or a hindrance. “We will win this war,” the president declared yesterday. Part of winning will be to remain ourselves.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama was among the first to declare us in the midst of “total war.” The war metaphor is apt because this should be viewed primarily as a crisis of foreign policy, not as an event that challenges the fundamental soundness of our domestic institutions.

If the challenge is seen in terms of foreign policy, the logical approach is to root out terrorist networks and, as the president said, to hold foreign nations accountable for nurturing them. That points not to symbolic airstrikes as a form of revenge but to a much more difficult course. In coalition with allies if possible, the purpose should be to destroy as much of the terrorist infrastructure around the world as we can.

But a war by terror is not the same as a war of invasion and territorial control. “Total war” implies a domestic mobilization of resources and a temporary suspension of normal life. We should mobilize new resources. But the paradox is that the suspension of normal life is precisely what terrorists seek.

That’s why it’s important that Sen. Joseph Biden, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, warned just hours after the assaults that “if we alter our basic freedoms, our civil liberties . . . we will have lost the war before it has begun.”

No one pretends that we are the same as we were before Sept. 11. But winning this war means resisting the idea that America will never be the same again. It means insisting that our nation can be both tough and democratic, that we can guard both public safety and liberty. That is our history. We should not renounce it now.

Of course there will be large changes -- in airline security and immigration checks at our borders. A commission headed by former senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman tried earlier this year to convince us of the urgency of defending ourselves at home. We will, too late for the victims of these attacks, now take this call seriously. We will no longer write off as a flight of Hollywood fantasy the possibilities of chemical and biological terrorism.

The mood now is not so much bipartisan as nonpartisan. That is appropriate. But this mood will not last if the desire for national unity in the face of a specific threat is used by anyone to bull through a partisan or ideological agenda. These attacks made our debates over taxing and spending seem trivial. They did not make them go away. Nonpartisanship -- on budget matters especially -- must be built on genuine compromise, or it will disappear.

But above all, we cannot forget that this terror is, as British Prime Minister Tony Blair put it, “perpetuated by fanatics who are utterly indifferent to the sanctity of life.” They are not typical, and this is not a typical war. Americans should never allow fanatics to create a climate of mistrust in our country so deep that we forget who we are, what we value and how we should live.

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