While the Bush administration plunged into the big job of fashioning an intelligent response to the bums who launched last week's terror attacks, some hotheads in the civilian world couldn't wait to make a stupid response. In Palos Heights, Ill., a man was charged with a hate crime for attacking a Moroccan gas station attendant with the blunt end of a machete. Vandals in San Francisco threw a bag of blood on the doorstep of an immigration center that serves Arabs.
From around the country come reports of such ugly stuff. Sometimes it is just ugly words. In person or on talk radio or on the Web, you can hear armchair warriors calling for more "profiling" of people who "look Arab" or "foreign." Other voices malign Islam itself as the culprit, although evidence suggests the suicide hijackers were not very good Muslims. Others call for carpet-bombing of Afghanistan or any other country known to harbor terrorists.
The anger is understandable; some people just have crude and sometimes criminal ways of expressing it. It is infuriating to see on TV a few hotheaded Palestinians in the Middle East celebrating the catastrophe. It is infuriating to suffer the first attack by outsiders on mainland American soil since the British burned the White House in the War of 1812.
I'm angry, too. The war drums are beating, as they should be. We are at war. Even if we don't know precisely who is waging war against us, we know we have been hit. This time it is not happening in Vietnam, Kosovo, the Persian Gulf or some other faraway land. This time it is happening right here at home.
But it also angers me as a friend of Muslim and Arab-American families to see them suddenly forced to be afraid of their fellow Americans every time a major episode of anti-American hostility arises out of the Middle East.
It angers me to see Islam, a beautiful religion in so many ways, misrepresented by those who practice three sins that true Islam strongly preaches against: hate, murder and suicide.
Osama bin Laden must be pleased that so many American bullies, vandals or loudmouths are venting their rage against innocent people. The "prime suspect," as Secretary of State Colin Powell calls bin Laden, is very good at targeting innocent people. It must delight bin Laden to know he has angered some Americans into stooping to his moral level.
That is why I am troubled, if not surprised, by polls like the CBS News poll that shows two-thirds of Americans want to retaliate "even if innocent people are killed."
Of course, the question is misleading. If anyone thinks we can wage war without killing innocent people, he or she is dreaming. But it is also important, before we start carpet-bombing Afghanistan or anyplace else, that we know what we are bombing. Our last retaliatory bombing against bin Laden didn't end up so well.
On Aug. 20, 1998, the Clinton administration struck bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan that reportedly was producing chemical weapons for bin Laden's use. The bombing was our retaliation for the bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa, acts that were linked to bin Laden.
But within days of the attack, the administration's explanations began to fall apart. Government officials were unable to prove Sudan was making chemical weapons for bin Laden after all. America had international egg on its face, and bin Laden scored another victory in his campaign to portray the United States as a vicious enemy of the Islamic world.
If the Clinton administration blew that mission, it was probably because it bowed too quickly to political pressures at home demanding quick and deadly retaliation for the embassy bombings. With that in mind, the Bush administration would be well advised to practice what Powell has preached to the Israelis: a "measured response" to the recent attacks.
Powell knows. If the Bush administration approaches this new war against terrorism the way Powell approached the Persian Gulf War, I don't expect the United States to make a hasty response. As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell directed a buildup against Saddam Hussein that took months before it smashed its way to victory.
Similar patience is necessary for this new war. It may be months before America is ready to take major action, if the Persian Gulf War is any indication. The wait will require something that presidents have a hard time preaching in situations like this: Patience.
America is angry, justifiably so. But we need to keep cool. When our anger overwhelms our better judgment, our enemies win.