America stepped through a portal last week, in a nightmare of flames, molten steel and innocent blood that engulfed the twin towers of the World Trade Center. As debris rained down on lower Manhattan, part of America's world collapsed along with the symbol of its financial power and prosperity. Tuesday, we stepped into a different future.
Manhattan, and the nation, will recover. But like Pearl Harbor 60 years ago and the Civil War nearly a century before that, the massive terrorist attack that unfolded in New York and at the Pentagon in Washington will alter the consciousness of the nation.
The true measure of the effectiveness of this attack by a shadowy, hate-filled enemy will lie in how we reassess ourselves and our place in the world, and how we redefine, as inevitably we will, the balance between individual liberty and collective, national security.
If we lose our liberties in the name of safety, the terrorists will have won. That cannot, must not, happen.
But debates over national security will rage through the days ahead, as we seek to redefine the price we are willing to pay for those freedoms. Beyond any military response against a single group of extremists linked to this assault on America -- as necessary at that might be -- we'll need to accept the fact that life in America is about to become a bit less convenient. From fewer flights caused by increased airport security to longer delays in crossing bridges to Canada, these inconveniences will be necessary if we are to protect ourselves and our land from the future attacks that will surely come. To choose the convenience we have become so used to will leave us forever vulnerable to acts spawned by hatred.
American interests abroad have been attacked before, and terrorism -- although rarely -- has reached these shores. But the sheer scale of both the planning and the tragedy unleashed last week reveals a fundamentally different vulnerability.
The attack on Pearl Harbor took less than 100 civilian lives; the attack on the World Trade Center took thousands. Where once hatred and acts of violence centered on the American government and its agents, this attack targeted ordinary American people and, by extension, a way of life that treasures individual freedoms despite the risks they entail.
America faces tough and immediate decisions in responding to an attack that cannot go unanswered. Once properly identified, the terrorists who planned and launched Tuesday's crimes against humanity -- crimes that took thousands of innocent lives in intentionally horrific ways -- merit swift and harsh punishment. But it will be far better if such punishment is carefully targeted, delivered by an international alliance such as NATO, and carried out in a cold and surgical way that sends an equally terrifying message to our enemies without splashing justice with the blood of innocent people.
We cannot, ourselves, become terrorists.
In the longer run, though, we face equally tough questions in redefining our world and the way we live in it. Such questions range far beyond the unavoidable debates over the costs of missile shields versus anti-terrorist programs and intelligence gathering.
"I think we're talking decades of a changing face of America," says Canisius College history professor J. David Valaik. Change "will manifest itself in simple ways, which will seem to be painful in the short run," he believes, and tighter airport security may be just the start.
"I think we will see much more of a police presence in our lives . . . and I think it will filter to some degree into our courts" as they redraw the balance between police power and individual rights, Valaik adds. "Civil liberties people are going to be irate, but I don't think we can afford to play by gentlemanly rules anymore. That will be very difficult for some people of this immediate generation."
But we, as a people, must find a way to respond to our changed world without deeply changing ourselves. "We have never thrown out civil liberties altogether, but the balance line moves," Cooper Union history professor Fred Siegel told a New York reporter the other day, as his city's wound still smoldered on the southern tip of Manhattan.
How we determine a new line, in the months and years ahead, will determine our future. We should expect -- and accept -- increased inconvenience in the name of security. But it will be important that inconvenience does not cross over the line and become a loss of freedom.
America will not be lost to terrorists. We must not lose it to ourselves.