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I've never been so happy to change the cat litter, to clean the basement, to mow the lawn.

Sunday was that kind of day, at my house and maybe at yours. There was a huge relief in mundane chores, or in just sitting around with the family, that brought normalcy back to life for me. After spending most of last week in New York City, covering the terrorist attack that destroyed the World Trade Center, I needed a dose of normal.

It's more than that. Out of our shared grief emerges our shared humanity.

I don't think I'm imagining it. People are nicer: Stopping their car to let somebody into traffic, holding a door for someone behind them, sharing words with someone they might otherwise pass by. On the way to work Monday, I saw two young ladies pull off Delaware Avenue with a flat tire. I turned around, stopped and changed it. On an ordinary day, believe me, I'm not that nice a guy.

I had our 6-year-old Sunday retell a story from a couple of weeks ago. Noticing one of our cats had some "residue" on its hindquarters, she put on a pair of dish-washing gloves and strapped on her swimming goggles. Armed with paper-cutting scissors, she detained Fuzzy and clipped free the offending particle.

Why the goggles?

"In case there were any germs floating around," she replied.

For the first time in a week, I threw back my head and laughed.

I suspect the same things are happening in every house, on every street. We reach for the lifelines of our children and loved ones.

But even as we heal, we have to see there are deeper messages in this.

The terrorists who did this are not insane, not madmen. On TV the other day they had a psychologist who studied those imprisoned after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. They were, he said, quite rational. They were, rightly or wrongly, filled with rage over what we've done in the Middle East.

Millions here cheered 10 years ago as our rockets hit their targets in the Gulf War, as we annihilated the Iraqi army in what some called a "turkey shoot." But those weren't turkeys. We fought the war basically to ensure that the pipeline of oil kept flowing to our energy-gulping country.

As gleeful as many were here, the war filled others with a lust for revenge -- a feeling we now well know.

In the decade since the Gulf War, we've led an embargo that kept supplies and medicine out of Iraq. We've dropped bombs in Baghdad. There is sewage in the streets. The United Nations said more than a million Iraqis have died -- many of curable illnesses -- as a result of the sanctions. Nearly half of them have been children.

It isn't just unjustified, it's wrong. Yet there was hardly any public outcry in this country. The attitude seemed to be: Too bad.

There's no evidence of direct involvement of Saddam in last week's attacks. That's not the point. The war and embargo embittered many in Middle Eastern countries -- some of last week's terrorists among them.

An article in Monday's New York Times said Mohammed Atta, who piloted the first jet into the trade center, was "shocked" by our role in the Gulf War and our Middle East policy since.

"(Atta) was very angry, in some sense he became desperate about it," said one of Atta's former university professors in Germany.

That doesn't mean the Gulf War and child-killing sanctions are any rationale for last week's carnage. God knows it's not, there's no justifying or forgiving that heinous act.

But we at least need to understand where it came from, how the seeds of hate were planted. And we need to realize that what we do around the world -- whether in Vietnam a generation ago, or by cutting off lifelines in Iraq today -- eventually has consequences.

Despite our military might and the protection of two oceans, we are not unreachable. What goes around sometimes comes around, whether it takes 10 minutes or 10 years. We need to pay more attention to what we're doing in the world, and the way it affects and changes lives.

The point came home last week. I don't know how long it will take us to recover, to heal our personal and collective grief. I only hope that, along with recovery, comes enlightenment.


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