Thomas Sowell

WHILE the casualties in the terrorist attacks are expected to run into the tens of thousands, in a larger sense the casualties run into the millions because we are all affected now and will be as long as we live. People from all over the country have kept the phone lines jammed with calls to New York and Washington, trying to find out if their family and friends are all right.

People far from the scene are nevertheless connected to it, one way or another. Two of my friends in New York witnessed the toppling of the World Trade Center. One was taking her children to school not too far from the explosion -- indeed, not far enough. When she returned to a street that she had just left, there was a woman who had been struck by flying debris and who was bleeding profusely, right where my friend had been standing just minutes before.

The angry reactions of the public make more sense than some of the words coming out of the government. Secretary of State Colin Powell said that what happened was a "tragedy." No! Bubonic plague was a tragedy but Pearl Harbor was an outrage. Bubonic plague caused more deaths, but it was something that just happened, while the Japanese government deliberately chose to attack Pearl Harbor. Another word out of Washington that strikes a false note is that we want to bring those responsible to "justice."

This is not a law and order issue. This was an act of war. When Pearl Harbor was bombed, nobody talked about bringing the Japanese pilots or even their commanders to justice. We declared war on Japan. It so happened that, a couple of years later, the navy learned that Admiral Yamamoto, who had planned the attack on Pearl Harbor, was in the air on a tour of his bases and they sent up some fighter planes that shot down the plane that was carrying him. But nobody talked about ending the war against Japan, just because the individual responsible for bombing Pearl Harbor had gotten justice.

Make no mistake about it. People around the world are watching to see what the American government does in the wake of this terrorist attack. Not what it says, but what it does. There are nations out there with all sorts of weapons of mass destruction who have held back on using them against us for fear of what the retaliation would be. John F. Kennedy said it best: "We dare not tempt them with weakness."

As a veteran of the Second World War, President Kennedy knew the high price paid in lives for the weakness and waffling of the western democracies in the years leading up to that war. They were attacked by countries that knew that the West had greater military potential, but doubted their will to use it. That is clearly the assumption of terrorist organizations and the countries that grant such organizations shelter and financial support.

No matter what we do now, there will undoubtedly be further acts of terrorism against the United States. Whoever planned this well-coordinated attack has obviously thought things through very thoroughly, so it is unlikely that the prospect of retaliation was left out of his calculations. A strong military response by the American government would then provide the terrorists with an excuse for a "retaliation" of their own, perhaps even more horrific, escalating the conflict and mobilizing the kinds of people in the Middle East who are already dancing in the streets for joy at the sight of the destruction of the World Trade Center.

No doubt any further acts of terror after the administration's response will be blamed on that response, even though such terrorist acts were probably already planned before the administration did anything. But escaping blame is a major preoccupation in Washington, so the response may be inadequate, for fear of being considered excessive by "world opinion." But when members of your family are dying, you don't worry about what the neighbors will say.

It is still early days and the unfortunate words of Secretary of State Powell may yet turn out to be just slips of the tongue. It may also turn out that President Bush will make his own decisions on his own terms, regardless of what anybody else has said. He has rejected the advice of Beltway denizens in the media and politics before and may do it again. He faces a greater challenge than any other president has faced since the Cuban missile crisis. When it is all over, we will know a lot more about what he is made of. And the world will know a lot more about what Americans are made of, for better or worse.


Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

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