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UNITY FALTERS OVER ISSUE OF CIVILIAN DEATHS

The flags are everywhere- on porches, on auto antennas, in shop windows. From sea to shining sea, America is wrapped in red, white and blue.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, a wave of patriotism not seen since World War II has swept the land. United we stand.

But the flag means different things to different people. What exactly are we standing for? And will we stay united if American bombs fall in Kabul and kill people as innocent as those in the World Trade Center?

Delaware Avenue in Kenmore, with its storefronts and churches, looks like Main Street, USA. We talked to about a dozen people in the village. Each said he or she flew the flag out of support for the victims and to show unity against terrorism.

But we stand divided over a key question: What happens if civilians die in American attacks on Afghanistan?

Having lost more than 6,000 civilians in the terrorist attacks, will we accept "collateral damage" as easily as we did in the Persian Gulf War?

Carol Colangelo's father fought in the Korean War. She hung the flag in the window of the family's shoe store the day of the attacks.

"We need to unite. We're all Americans," she said.

What if we drop bombs that kill civilians?

"I hope that won't happen," said Colangelo, 36. "If it does, I don't know. You can't say an eye for an eye against innocent people."

Cori Kernahan had a flag placard taped to her minivan window. Her 2- and 4-year-old kids were strapped in the rear seat. She put up the flag out of respect for the people killed, and to show we're united against terrorists. But her flag may not stand if our revenge kills innocents.

"We need to target terrorist camps, not ordinary citizens of Afghanistan," said Kernahan. "That wouldn't be right."

Others didn't agree. To some, civilian deaths are the price that country will pay for harboring terrorists. If we attack, that difference in opinion is the fault line that will separate Americans.

Betty Graber flies the flag from the porch of her Kenmore home. Her ex-husband was in Army intelligence, special forces.

"No matter what the loss of life, I'd rather have it over there than here," said Graber. "I'd hate to see the loss of children, but if those people want terrorists over there, they deserve what they get. . . . They didn't care about our people dying."

Shirley Balbuzoski flew the flag long before Sept. 11. The Girl Scout leader said civilian deaths in a U.S. attack would "bother me spiritually and emotionally." But her patriotism wouldn't flag.

"I don't know what the answer is against terrorism," said Balbuzoski, 41. "But I support whatever actions our military feels it needs to take."

That's how it went. United we stand, unless our bombs kill civilians. Then it gets tricky.

Are civilian deaths acceptable? If so, how many? How many is too many? Those are questions we may soon have to answer.

A dozen people on a Kenmore street isn't a scientific survey. But uneasy feelings about civilian casualties in a U.S. attack were shown in a recent New York Times/CBS News poll. Ninety-two percent said the United States should attack those behind the Sept. 11 terrorism. But 78 percent said we should wait until we have the right targets.

The view here is if we take the attitude of "tough luck," if we simply write off hundreds, maybe thousands, of innocent lives as the price of revenge, we're not the country we like to think we are.

There's not just a moral problem with civilian casualties, there's a practical one. If innocent people die, it plants seeds of rage that create 10 more bin Ladens -- and thousands to follow them. According to a "60 Minutes" report, the missiles we fired into an Afghan village two years ago missed bin Laden -- but killed six children and dozens of villagers. And made us hundreds of enemies.

Civilians will probably die when we strike back. But we need to try our mightiest to spare those already suffering from more than 20 years of war. If we do, we show the world -- especially Arab nations uneasy in their support -- that we stand on moral high ground.

Otherwise, those who crumbled the World Trade Center dragged us into the same muck they crawled out of.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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