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It seems so long ago, doesn't it? Remember when all we needed to think about was who Bill Clinton was sleeping with, or whether President Bush would be spectacularly ungrammatical, or whether Bill Gates was obscenely rich, or merely too rich?

Remember when we could be the most powerful, prosperous, and peaceful nation that the world had ever known, apparently without consequence? Remember when we thought that the tumult, hatred, and craziness that consumes much of the world could never touch us?

That's all finished now.

I spent Tuesday morning as most of us did; huddled before the TV set with families, friends or coworkers, watching our world change. What did we feel? Horror, pity, fear, anger, compassion -- and, above all, bewilderment.

How did it happen? Why did it happen? How could we have prevented it? And why us? What interest could an act of terrorism of this magnitude possibly serve?

Ordinary Americans, at peace with themselves and, they thought, the world, brutally murdered. We have an enemy; powerful, determined, implacable, whose dimensions we're just beginning to grasp, whose nature we've never bothered to understand. At this writing, it seems clear that these coordinated attacks were mounted by a group or groups deeply rooted in the multiple conflicts of the Islamic world.

In our dim way, we've understood that there are a lot of folks in the Middle East who, for reasons that we don't really understand, despise us and hold us responsible for their misery.

We've tended to give them shadowy identities -- meaningless labels that have allowed us to think that we knew something, when in fact we knew nothing. Osama bin Laden' Palestinian radicals, Saddam Hussein. The labels allowed us to think that our enemies were just a few angry radicals, when in fact much of the Arab world was, and is, consumed with hatred of America.

In virtually every country in the Middle East, the great majority of poor male children receive their only education at neighborhood religious schools, where they are taught by Muslim clerics. The content varies little; students, as far as we know, are taught an aberrant fundamentalist version of Islam, which glorifies martyrdom, excoriates Jews and Christians, and blames the United States for the poverty, social chaos and corruption that plagues the Muslim world.

Like the officially sanctioned anti-Semitism that permeated European society for centuries, and which culminated in the Holocaust, this fundamentalism is the dominant political discourse of many, many millions of people.

We look for metaphors, for some way to make sense of the day. One phrase is on everybody's lips -- Pearl Harbor. A world comes to an end; another begins. But then we knew what to do. We could join the armed forces, or we could simply resolve to work for victory. We knew our enemy. But today, who do we fight? Osama? Whatever Palestinian splinter group we decide to blame?

It's not gonna do any good to launch a bunch of cruise missiles into some desolate Afghan encampment. Our enemy is like a virus, a disease -- it's a disease of words and thoughts, transmitted by thousands of teachers, absorbed by hundreds of thousands of students.

It's not a military problem; like Germany's anti-Semitism, it's a societal infection, a thought disorder that has infected much of the Middle East. It's too late to agonize over the what-ifs and if-onlys. ... Sure, our policies might have been better conceived, or more adroitly executed, but so what?

We need to think about the world more clearly. We need to realize that the war with Iraq, cleverly titled Desert Storm, which for us was a mildly dangerous video game, took the lives of 100,000 young Iraqis. These kids -- confused, young conscripts -- had brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, friends and lovers. How did they feel after the war? Did they blame Saddam? Most probably, they blamed us, and maybe they swore revenge.

How will we deal with this attack? With the kind of clear-eyed wisdom that, in our history, only Lincoln achieved? Or will we simply become another player in an endless cycle of violence and death?

One thing is clear. If our enemies can persuade scores, hundreds, thousands of young men -- capable, intelligent young men, who can plan and execute the kind of attacks that took place this Tuesday -- to commit themselves to acts of absolute evil, then our nation is in peril.

We can find and label enemies all we want. It won't work. Whom do we smite, with our terrible swift sword?

Let us hope that our president, the leader of this great, free and open country, will rise to this awful challenge, as so many of his predecessors have, and find the strength and wisdom to deal with a new, and terrible, world.


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