NEW YORK – I was sitting on my balcony this morning editing an opinion piece when the silver belly of a commercial jet suddenly flew right over my apartment building. It was headed toward the southwest over Greenwich Village rather than northeast over the Hudson or East Rivers, the customary aviation route toward La Guardia Airport.
“My God,” I thought. “He's heading for an emergency landing at Newark. I hope he makes it.” The situation was serious enough that I checked the alarm clock inside my apartment. It was 8:46 a.m.
I heard no explosion and figured the plane was OK. A few minutes later, I saw some puffs of light, gray smoke. They were not the columns of black fumes I would have expected, so I thought little of it.
The phone rang about 15 minutes later. “Put on the TV,” a friend said. “Two planes crashed into the World Trade Center.” I clicked on the tube and saw the images that are chilling Americans from coast to coast.
I walked two blocks west to University Place, a normally quiet street filled with restaurants, a bowling alley and New York University students. It was filled this morning with spectators who spilled into what little traffic flowed on the streets. One woman holding a coffee cup in her right hand covered her mouth with her left and cried.
Even as the wounded are healed and the dead are recovered from the rubble at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and near Somerset, Pennsylvania, America must focus on two words: restraint and ruthlessness.
In the face of this calamity, officials will be tempted to restrict civil liberties. Indeed, as I write these words, I am stuck on Manhattan Island with several million other Americans. Tunnels and bridges are sealed. Rail and bus service has been suspended. And, of course, our three airports are closed, along with every other domestic airfield. The only planes aloft here are U.S. fighter jets that have begun to patrol overhead.
These measures are understandable right now, especially if authorities hope to catch potential suspects in these high crimes. But over the long term, political leaders must exercise extreme caution about overreacting to these staggeringly severe circumstances. Those who have called for government control of Internet encryption technology, monitoring of the movements of cell phone users and similar surveillance techniques will demand these and other steps in the aftermath of these disasters. In the name of fighting terrorism, such steps may be appealing. However, American leaders and voters alike should be very careful about embracing measures today that will leave citizens less free in the long run in an effort to catch criminals in the here and now. The Bill of Rights must not collapse with the Twin Towers.
American officials should feel no such restraint about retaliating against whatever group or nation perpetrated these acts of war. Any country that gave aid and comfort to whomever did these things should be treated as if its president were at the controls of one of the flying bombs that so tragically found its target.
“Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward, and freedom will be defended,” President Bush declared this afternoon.
While the president spoke with firmness, he underestimated these villains. Cowards quake beneath their beds. These explosions are the work of audacious, disciplined, motivated killers. These people are not cowardly. They are evil. They and any states that sponsored them should be identified and crushed, mercilessly and soon.
America is world renowned as the land of Britney Spears, reality TV, snowboards and boundless plenty. For that and more, we are loved by most. But at times like these, we also must be respected and even feared.
Let no one forget that in addition to being home to a fat, happy and well-entertained people, the United States remains Earth's surviving superpower. We possess the power to assert ourselves and our interests by any means necessary, conventional or atomic. It is incumbent on America's civilian and military leaders to locate the guilty parties and teach them this lesson – good and hard – with all the gentility of the Israeli army in a rotten mood.
A battle cry is in order: Find them and flatten them.