Remember who we are

September 12, 2001|By Bill Tammeus

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - What we felt most acutely was fear, the uncontrolled fire of angst and dread that eats away our assurance that the world is a safe and hospitable place.

We could see clearly on our televisions that New York and Washington were burning, that something unspeakable and bizarre was happening.

But what we didn't know - couldn't at first know - was whether somehow the whole world was unraveling, whether we were all in the cross hairs of fanatics who were determined to bring our lives crashing down.

Whether what was happening in the East would begin to happen next here in the Heartland. Whether, as poet William Butler Yeats once wrote, mere anarchy was being loosed upon the world.

Fear like that knots the heart. It causes the soul to shake and shiver. It stirs rage at whoever unleashed this evil but also - perhaps irrationally - at whoever should have prevented it and didn't.

Just before the fear, what most of us felt was radical disbelief.

In retrospect, of course, it's clear that such disbelief usually is born of naivete. And clearly we are guilty of naivete.

Despite previous terrorist attacks - not only in 1993 at the World Trade Center, site of the first attack Tuesday, but also in 1995 in Oklahoma City - most of us assume we live in a protected country, a place where terrorism can gain no permanent footing.

This sense of security, however foolish and ephemeral, is a luxury most of the world does not enjoy.

People regularly die violently in the hostile air of Bosnia and Kosovo, of Rwanda and Belfast. The fear that people in New York and Washington - and the rest of the United States - experienced yesterday morning was in some ways like what a lot of people on the globe worry about daily.

Now, of course, we will worry about it, too. We must. We simply no longer can afford the kind of innocence that imagines we are free from attack merely because we are, at core, a good-hearted people who love liberty.

For one thing, important parts of the world don't see us in that innocent way.

For another, if we don't protect and preserve our freedoms by being watchful, cautious, careful, we may give away our role as the guardian of liberty. The world can't afford to have us do that.

This doesn't mean turning our country into a police state, abandoning all individual liberties, rounding up anyone who looks suspicious. We must resist that kind of natural response.

But it does mean that our systems for detecting and thwarting hijackers and other terrorists must be analyzed and improved. It does mean that the people in charge of protecting us from terrorism must be as clever as the terrorists. We must give them the resources for that - all the while making sure they don't run amok in their zealousness.

As the post-attack days unfold, it will help all of us to pay special attention to the stories of heroism we will hear. You can be sure that as people tried to escape the collapsing World Trade Center, lots of people - not just trained emergency workers, but also many others - performed acts of bravery and courage.

We will discover, in those stories, the true heart of our people. In the face of danger and disaster, most Americans inevitably seek to ease pain and offer comfort. They risk their own lives. They value the lives of others at risk because they understand that every individual - no matter social rank - is of inestimable value.

Pay attention to those stories as they get told. Remind yourselves, your children, your grandchildren, that when the darkness of evil envelops our people, we respond with grace and spirit and valor. We saw it in Oklahoma City. We saw it in Kansas City when the skywalks collapsed at the Hyatt Hotel in 1981. We see it wherever destruction engulfs us.

We now will enter a protracted period of national grief that will be full not only of pain but also of recrimination and angry ideas for how to respond. As this takes place, let's remember what we value. Let's remember who we are. Let's not give in to blind and widespread hatred. Rather, let us hold accountable whoever it was who rained havoc on us. Let us bind up our wounds, mourn with those who mourn, comfort those whose losses were terrifying, shocking and irreplaceable.

This will not be easy, but it's what we all must do, including me. As I was hurriedly writing this piece, I learned from one of my sisters that her only son may have been on the hijacked flight from Boston that crashed into the World Trade Center.

We all pray it isn't true, but whether it was my nephew or someone else's nephew or son or daughter, the response must be the same.

We must seek complete justice even as we hold each other up and become for one another the channels of grace and the deep wells from which we will need to draw comfort.

Bill Tammeus is an editorial page columnist for the Kansas City Star. Readers may write to him at: The Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413. Or e-mail him at

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.