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It's like something out of the movie "Independence Day," said the anchor when he saw footage of a jetliner spearing the South Tower of the World Trade Center and spewing a dark flame into the sky. Then again, maybe he said it when he, as we all did, watched that tower implode into a giant black flower of dust, like an evil magician's trick. "Like a movie" is what so many of us said in the first days of last week's catastrophe.

It really was "like something in a movie." Didn't the best scene in "Deep Impact" a few fears ago show us the World Trade Center about to be engulfed by a continental-sized tidal wave? Didn't we all thrill and shudder and laugh unself-consciously when we saw the aliens in "Independence Day" zap the White House into pixie dust? Or, when their evil rays upended skyscrapers and annihilated Manhattan streets? We were safe and warm, with our boxes of popcorn in our lap and our cola in the cup holder.

We enjoyed it innocently and immensely for a simple reason: we knew in the deepest parts of us that nothing like it could possibly ever happen. In Fortress America, Washington landmarks were impregnable. The Empire City of the World could be pinpricked but that's all. East Side, West Side, all around the town, the only real demolition would come from tireless urban developers.

Now we know differently. Now we know the truth. And it's absolutely the biggest change in our sense of self that most of us have ever lived through.

When John F. Kennedy was shot on Nov. 22, 1963, I was a sophomore at Syracuse University just getting ready for Thanksgiving break. My sense of the country I lived in was never the same. One day, JFK was the glamorous idealist who awakened the country from its Eisenhower slumber. The next, he was killed in Dallas. And so was the man accused of being his killer. In less than five years, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy would also be slain. This was no longer the safe and orderly DeSoto-driving America I'd grown up in.

That was, perhaps, a minor prelude to what we are now experiencing. This is a new world. We've stepped through the movie screen to the other side and it doesn't begin to resemble any special effect we've ever seen. It's more frightening, more banal, more squalid and more heroic, too.

We suspect since last Tuesday that we are the same nation that many of our parents lived in during the Depression and World War II. People have, in the week since the attack, routinely felt an easy unanimity and community that has, perhaps, not happened in America since World War II.

That's what happens when, for the first time in modern history, American soil has been violated by a foreign enemy. Everybody seems to know someone who was mere blocks away from the World Trade Center. Everybody, on last Tuesday morning, had some people they needed to hear from as soon as possible. Most of us were lucky. We heard.

Many didn't. And never will.

But the unanimity of war-time sentiment can exact a steep and terrible price. I waited, in vain, to hear someone on TV voice out loud one of my dark first questions: was this, in any way, a product of our electing George W. Bush president? Were these terrorists who now perceived a weakness that made us ripe for attack? Or were there some who were terminally enraged that the United States elected the son of the man who launched Operation Desert Storm?

Sour, totally unedifying thoughts to be sure. But in the world's greatest democracy, we air thoughts sweet and sour every day. We try to get them out into the sunlight and see what happens to them.

Maybe not in war time, though. We're not as eager to trust the sunlight. Candlelight vigils meet our immediate needs better. We're warm and content knowing the current, however choppy, is all flowing in one direction. I'm a little afraid of what's going to happen to minority opinion and dissent in this new America we're now living in.

I'm more than a little afraid for the fate of those among us with dark skins wearing headscarves. To be a hard-working, law-abiding Arab-American in our new America can't be comfortable. In such a climate, one of our new heroes should assuredly be evangelist Robert H. Schuller who made a special point of sharing the pulpit of his Crystal Cathedral with a Muslim minister on Sunday and embraced him openly.

Now we know what it looks like from the other side of the movie screen. As we all should have expected, it doesn't look like a movie at all.


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