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Jewish World Review Sept. 14, 2001 / 25 Elul 5761

Bill Schneider

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The American spirit will not wane -- SHOCK. HORROR. INCOMPREHENSION. Can this be compared to any experience in America's collective memory?

Everyone will remember for the rest of their lives exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the terrible news. Like the day President John F. Kennedy was murdered in 1963. The Kennedy assassination was shocking and terrible, as was the attempt on President Ronald Reagan's life in 1981. But it was easy to see those as isolated attacks by deranged individuals. They were tragedies, not threats.

The Challenger disaster in 1986 was a terrible accident. There was grief, there was dismay. But there was no sense of threat.

The bombing of the U.S. marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983 was clearly the work of terrorists. As was last year's bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, and the 1998 bombings at the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the 1996 attack on the Khobar Towers residence in Saudi Arabia. Americans were targeted in all those cases. But not on American soil.

The sense of threat intensified after the terrorist bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988. American civilians were killed, on a civilian aircraft. But it happened overseas. TWA flight 800 crashed just off U.S. shores in 1996. But no terrorist attack was ever proved.

Here's a closer parallel: the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, now, sadly, to become known as the first bombing of the World Trade Center. It was a terrorist attack, on American soil, that killed American civilians. But the terrorists were eventually brought to justice. Then came the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. In that case, the real shock was that it was not an attack by overseas terrorists. The threat came from within. During the 1990s, for the first time, terrorism struck home.

After Oklahoma City, polls showed that over 90 percent of Americans believed that similar attacks of violence would occur again. But few people believed they would happen in places where they lived and worked. Most Americans did not feel personally threatened by terrorism. And most said they saw no reason to change their habits or activities to avoid becoming a target.

That was then. This is now. Now, according to a Gallup poll taken for USA Today and CNN on Tuesday night, 58 percent of Americans say they are worried that they or someone in their family will become the victim of a terrorist attack. Want to see a real gender gap? Seventy percent of women, but only 45 percent of men, say they are worried.

On the other hand, nearly 90 percent of both men and women describe the attacks as "an act of war against the United States.'' A majority (55 percent) believes the attacks represent "the beginning of a sustained terrorist campaign against the United States.''

Tuesday night, President Bush described a country consumed by "a quiet, unyielding anger.'' He warned, "The search is underway for those who are behind these evil acts.''

Americans are remarkably patient. Over 70 percent of the public believes the military should conduct strikes only against the terrorist organizations responsible for the attacks, even if it takes months to identify them. Only one in five feels the U.S. should conduct strikes immediately against known terrorist organizations, even if it is unclear who was responsible. What's behind the public's patience? The fact that a majority of Americans think it's "very likely'' that the U.S. government will be able to identify and punish those responsible.

But one thing has not changed: Americans remain unreceptive to the idea of changing their way of life in order to cope with the threat of terrorism. The poll asked, "Do you think you will change any aspect of your personal life or activities in order to reduce your chances of being a victim of terrorist attacks?'' The number of Americans who said no after the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995: 83 percent. The number who still say no: 61 percent.

But more than a third (36 percent) say yes. And that's no small number of people. When asked whether the hijackings make you "less willing to fly on an airplane,'' about 60 percent of women said yes. About sixty percent of men said no.

For the closest comparison to September 11, 2001, you have to go back almost sixty years, to December 7, 1941 -- "a date that will live in infamy,'' President Franklin D. Roosevelt called it. Pearl Harbor was a sneak attack, on American soil, by an overseas power.

But Pearl Harbor was not an attack on New York or Washington, the capitals of U.S. wealth and power. Nor was it an attack on civilian air traffic. Or on American civilians. Pearl Harbor was an attack on U.S. military forces. There were fewer fatalities than now. And it happened while the rest of the world was at war.

One day after Pearl Harbor, an outraged U.S. went to war. A lot of Americans may want to go to war now. But with whom? President Bush warned, ominously, "We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.''

September 11, 2001, is another day that will live in infamy, like December 7, 1941, and November 22, 1963. "None of us will ever forget this day,'' President Bush said on Tuesday night. He was right.

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© 2001, William Schneider