Paul Greenberg

Tuesday, September 11, 2001. A day full of shock, anger, fear. And confusion. The country was under attack. And at first it wasn't even clear who had attacked us.

The identity of the attackers became clear even as the fires still raged: This was the work of the same bunch of terrorists who had tried to topple the Twin Towers back in 1993. Back then the killers had been treated as defendants in federal court, with all rights and privileges pertaining thereto. They would be convicted only after a lengthy and arduous trial. As if theirs had been not an act of war but a violation of the criminal code.

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Now we had been attacked again -- by the same fanatical enemy that had struck our embassies in Africa, and attacked the USS Cole just a year before off Aden, killing 17 American sailors.

And again we had been caught unprepared.

Sometime during that swirling day, in the midst of all the madness, I had a column to write. The only catch: It was supposed to make sense. Maybe even suggest a course of action.

When in doubt, plagiarize. Excuse me, research. And what better source to crib from than the ever energetic, not to say frenetic, Teddy Roosevelt? In his time, specifically 1904, an American businessman of uncertain citizenship, Ion Perdicaris, had been kidnapped in Morocco by the last of the Barbary pirates, the Sherif Ahmed ibn Muhammed Raisuli. Talk about a name to conjure with!

TR was not impressed. He promptly dispatched (a) a naval squadron to Tangier, and (b) a telegram offering the kidnappers a choice: "Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead."

Bully for him! After many a complication and some comedy, Mr. Perdicaris would come home to a White House reception. End of incident.

In 2001, the culprit had an exotic name, too: Osama bin Laden. He was thought to be somewhere in the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan at the time (and may still be) under the protection of the Taliban. Borrowing a leaf from Teddy's book, I wrote a column suggesting that the American response to the attacks that day ought to be just as clear and concise as TR's had been: Osama alive or the Taliban dead.

Bully! Another column out of the way. Remarkable how one borrowed idea can be stretched into 800 words or so.

But wait. For there's many a slip 'twixt writing and publication. An editor at the syndicate called to say there was a problem.

Oh, really? What was it?


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.