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Americans should not mistake the commitment being asked of them as the country prepares for a war against terrorism. It is, at its heart, a call to sacrifice -- and to a struggle that is likely to last for years.

This will not be a video war, played out only in antiseptic footage of quick cruise missile strikes, grainy black-and-white images of "smart bombs" disappearing down rooftop vents or green-tinted sequences of anti-aircraft fire rising into night skies. We can do that, if our motive is purely revenge. It is not.

The single most compelling reason for an all-out war against terrorism -- one that could result in additional attacks on America and the return of some of our bravest in body bags -- is not retribution for the atrocities committed in New York and Washington, as despicable as those acts were. As deeply angered as this nation is, in the wake of its horror and mourning, vengeance is best left to the God these terrorists blasphemed by claiming to act in his name.

The reason for action lies in recognizing, now, the need to stop this kind of insanity before worse crimes against humanity occur -- crimes that could involve biological, chemical or even nuclear weapons. Western New York is not safe from those threats. Nobody is.

That is the nature of this call to arms, and the reason why risks must be taken now. It's also why calls to avoid taking those risks, or to avoid any forceful reaction that could harm noncombatants, miss the mark.

The nation, rightly and with clear recognition of the need to build an international coalition, must respond to an existing and continuing threat, not just to an evil act. Virulent hatred cannot be negotiated out of existence, although efforts can and should be made to ease the conditions that foster terrorism. It's a threat that must be eliminated, along with its practitioners.

It's also a threat wider even than the al-Qaida organization of Osama bin Laden, a man who, this summer, already had been linked to the failed "millennium plot" to bomb the Los Angeles airport and indicted by India for involvement in embassy attacks.

The enemy in this war is an entire network of small and large terrorist groups, not all of them Arab and not all of them targeted solely or even primarily on the United States. It will involve drawing distinctions between in-country and international terrorism, between nations where terrorist cells exist and nations that harbor or support terrorists.

It will require extraordinary care in identifying targets, and eliminating them in ways that, wherever possible, avoid harming the innocent or damaging friendly nations.

It is not a "new" war. When this nation was new, high-seas terrorism by Barbary Coast pirates brought American forces to the shores of Tripoli. In the two centuries since that conflict, the United States has been tested by terrorists repeatedly -- and, to its current dismay, has encouraged guerrilla groups in its own interests, including those that once fought a large Russian army to a standstill in Afghanistan and now form the core of bin Laden's organization.

But an increasingly complex world brings increasingly complex tests, and President Bush now has called the nation to meet a difficult challenge -- one that will require an economic price, seek a sacrifice of personal liberties that must balance national security against the freedoms that define America, and almost inevitably bring more heartbreak.

How we meet that challenge again will define us, for this century, as a people. And it will redefine the world.

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