Knowledge Gained the Hard Way

Just a week ago, we were so very different

One week ago, three hours into the terrorist attack on America, I qualified what I was about to write with the following words:

"By the time you read it, you'll know much more than I do now."

That was not intended to be so prophetic.

Just think about how much more we all know now than we did just one week ago. Not merely about the details -- that would be the case in any big story -- but about who we are as a people, as a species.

How long ago was it that mention of national treasure Rudy Giuliani evoked a joke about his marriage or sex life? Eight years? Try eight days.

One week ago Monday, if someone asked you to name a hero, would you have mentioned a fireman or policeman? Doubtful.

How worried would you have said you felt about the threat of terrorism?

We've aged decades in less than a week. No event in our history has torn our hearts or bound our spirits like this. No event has educated us like this.

No event has changed us like this.

It's not all good. As one who finds himself supporting a war for the first time in his life -- I'll continue to wear opposition to both the Vietnam and Persian Gulf fiascoes as a badge of honor -- it gives me no pleasure that I wake up hoping to hear that Osama bin Laden and anyone associated with him, anyone remotely involved in organized terrorism, is dead.

But that's what I do for the first time in my life: hope someone else gets killed. Indeed, when President George W. Bush said Monday that bin Laden was wanted "dead or alive," I shuddered at the "alive" part. Can you imagine how much terrorism would ensue in the name of freeing this rodent were he to be incarcerated?

This is not my customary tone. Then again, as I found after last week's commentary, this subject doesn't lend itself to customary anything.

The response I have received in the past week has been overwhelming and largely positive -- a stunning development attributable to national unity and the subject matter, not the piece -- and many of the comments have been prefaced with the obligatory "I can't believe I'm agreeing with you...." A few individuals wondered whether I had changed.

Well, yes. Haven't you?

But a truly unexpected part of this is how alienated I've felt from fellow "progressives," especially those speaking the words of peace, understanding and "violence not begetting violence," words I might normally be uttering myself. The likes of bin Laden will never give peace a chance, nor should they be allowed to at this point.

As a left-leaning friend whose home is just a few blocks from the World Trade Center site told me Monday, "Bring these progressives to Ground Zero and see what they have to say."

One other point: In a letter published this week I am accused of harboring hatred for Muslims and their religion.

It seems I suggested last week that to those who would declare a jihad (Muslim holy war against nonbelievers) against us, we ought to "give them the best jihad-in-return that a $300 billion military budget can buy." This, my critics suggest, placed me on my "bigoted horse" and amounted to advocating "hating and killing through stereotypes, racism and religious intolerance."


At the peril of committing further political incorrectness, I'll let my statement stand. But it seems obvious that the "jihad-in-return" (a clumsy phrase, I admit) should be aimed at those who declare the freaking jihad, not all -- or, really, more than a tiny sliver -- of the world's Muslim population.

Hello out there! There are 1.2 billion souls who adhere to the Islamic faith on this planet, and the estimates I've heard say there are as few as 5,000 key command-and-control types to be eradicated in the major international terrorist groups.

Get out your calculators. That's one person in 240,000 who's our enemy. Muslims are not the enemy of our nation. Terrorists falsely claiming to represent the Islamic faith are our enemy, and they are the ones who have specifically called for a jihad, over and over.

To them I say "jihad-in-return," not to Muslims anywhere, much less everywhere. And let me repeat one other thing from last week: "By no means should any ire be turned on the millions of Muslims in this country, who are every bit as much American as anyone else."

Could that be any clearer? We should be ashamed of -- and heavily prosecute the perpetrator of -- any terrorist incident aimed at Arab-Americans, Muslims or any other ethnic group perceived to be associated with the enemy. It's racism. It's wrong.

This speaks to the delicacy of America's mission. In a perfect world, high-tech laser technology would simply be used to vaporize the command-and-control types of the terrorist groups, gangland-style, and we'd go about our business.

In the real world, we must weave our way through a maze of complexities related to, among other factors, fundamentalist Muslim influences in dozens of nations. We must be sensitive -- and I believe the Bush administration is -- to the need to make this a war on terrorists, not on Muslims.

To me, this shouldn't be about vengeance, no matter how soothing that might feel when it comes. This is the most pragmatic of tasks: Either we systematically crush the well-funded and sophisticated organizations of international terror or the entire world -- people of all nationalities, cultures and faiths -- will continue to be plagued with fear and uncertainty.

We should strive to do this with the absolute minimum loss of innocent life in Afghanistan and elsewhere, albeit with the recognition that war remains hell. We should try to make this as multinational and civilized as possible.

At home, we should remain vigilant in minimizing the loss of civil liberties and the gain of bad political ideas, such as stupendous Star Wars spending and more tax cuts for the rich. We need to keep the new wave of patriotism funneled positively, not against dissenters.

There. I haven't shifted that much, after all.

But when it comes to the terrorist enemy, we should still want nothing but blood, nothing less than total victory.

That much we know like never before.