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In the days since terrorists launched their murderous assault on the symbols of America's economic and military power, killing thousands of our people, the national response has been nothing short of magnificent. From the hard hats working in the wreckage of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to the highest leaders of the land, Americans have stepped up to the challenge.

Having lived through Pearl Harbor Day, the Chinese attack across the Yalu River in Korea, the murders of John and Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Tet offensive and the other tragedies of Vietnam, the Challenger disaster, the assault on the Marines in Lebanon, the Oklahoma City bombing and the other calamities of six decades, I still was stunned to see Sept. 11 - which happens to be my birthday - become another day of infamy.

If there is any consolation, it is the privilege of witnessing the courage, compassion and generosity of my fellow citizens. Not least is the pride a political reporter can take in the performance of fellow journalists, whose professionalism has delivered images and reports of almost unbearable eloquence.

The politicians we cover also have done themselves proud. Mayor Rudy Giuliani has held his scarred city together by dint of his own strong-willed example. Vice President Cheney, always cool in a crisis, organized the government's response from the basement operations room in the White House and later recounted those first frantic hours to NBC's Tim Russert in a calm, matter-of-fact way that reaffirmed the public's sense of security in having him there.

Most important, President Bush has dealt with the awful and unexpected situation as one would have hoped. He has been out in front - meeting with the struggling salvage workers at the sites of the destruction and talking directly and often to the American people.

His address at the National Cathedral service of prayer and remembrance was the finest he has given. The words were simple but strong: "War has been waged against us by stealth and deceit and murder. This nation is peaceful, but fierce when stirred to anger. This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others. It will end in a way and at an hour of our choosing." Forty-six words, 35 of them monosyllables and none of the rest longer than two syllables. The message was powerful - and the tone dead right.

Impressive as the national leadership has been this past week, the real tests for them - and for the American people - lie ahead. It is one thing to promise, as the president has done repeatedly, to "rid the world of evil." Doing it is another matter.

Anyone who wonders how complicated rooting out terrorism will be should watch the C-SPAN tape of last week's Council on Foreign Relations meeting, where four members of the U.S. Commission on National Security in the 21st Century discussed their findings.

Last February, that bipartisan commission identified terrorism as the main threat to America's future and recommended specific steps - starting with a reorganization of our security forces - to counter it. But former Sens. Gary Hart and Warren Rudman and former Reps. Lee Hamilton and Newt Gingrich gave a sobering appraisal of the difficulty of the challenge, given the hostility toward the United States in parts of the Middle East, the threat radical Islamic groups pose to several countries in the Gulf and South Asia - and our desire to keep this an open society.

One example: How do you prevent infiltration by terrorists when 489 million people and 120 million vehicles cross our borders each year?

This struggle will test the temperament of the American people for a long time. But one thing needs to be done right now. I have been talking with my friend Jim Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute, about the assaults and threats members of that community have experienced since September 11.

Vile words have been uttered on the street and on talk radio shows. Bullets and fists have flown. That cannot be condoned. The statements of condemnation from the Bush administration and the Senate have been strong. But they need to be echoed in local communities. It is not enough to remain silent. The bigots must be condemned, and gestures of support given to Arab American families. This too is part of our national character test.

Washington Post Writers Group

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