Americans went to their comfortable beds on the night of September 10 and awoke to a dawn drawn in blood. By the time the sun had set again, the hideous scar in the wall of the Pentagon and the cascading horror of the World Trade towers would be forever fused in our memory with the burning hulls of sunken battleships at Pearl Harbor.
Violence of this enormity is not easily or quickly absorbed. The numbers alone stun the imagination. Eleven million square feet of office space—more than can be found in the entire city of Dallas—gone, poof, just like that. More than twice as many Americans were killed on September 11 than during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 combined; more than twice as many as at Pearl Harbor; more than on the bloody beaches of Iwo Jima; more than on the first day of the Normandy invasion. And such ghastly statistics can’t begin to tell the tale of shattered families and broken hearts.
The unexpected arrival of brutality is stunning enough, but our modern intellectual equipment, which discarded sin long ago, disarmed us against the focused malevolence of the September 11 attack. That morning’s evil was satanic, and our blood chills at the mere thought that such a thing is possible. But death concentrates the mind as nothing else. In an instant, millions of Americans realized the frailty of their once-proud condition and saw through tear-filled eyes the utter triviality of much of what they had valued only moments before. As in 1941, brutal fact forced us to face truths from which we too long sought to avert our gaze—truths about our own moral lassitude, truths about the evil abroad in the world.
We were militarily unprepared in 1941, but our culture was stronger then. Today, no one can match our might, yet the question lingers whether we can gather ourselves together for the struggle that lies ahead. Certainly, the display of religious fervor since September 11 has been heartening. So, too, the extraordinary displays of civility, kindness, and heroism beyond description, and the bracing outburst of spontaneous patriotism of a kind not seen since World War II. These are all good signs that testify to the noble potential of resilient national strength. The better angels of American character have served us well before, and despite the self-absorption of this era they can come to our aid again.
Democracies are slow to anger, but ferocious when roused. The jackals who brought death and destruction to our shores fancy themselves clever men. They can grasp the artifacts of technology and deploy them to perverse purpose. But they do not understand what freedom is, and because they do not, they cannot grasp the ardor that free men will bring to the defense of their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.
Osama bin Laden and the corrupt regimes who give him succor have made a grave miscalculation. They have misread not only the American people but their leader. Much to his critics’ surprise, President George W. Bush has risen to the occasion. After the initial shock of September 11, it took him a few days to find his footing and his voice, but find them he did, beginning with his eloquent and moving remarks at the National Cathedral.
If you want a window into Bush’s soul, there it was. More a prayer than a speech, it articulated the most authentically Christian sentiment voiced by an American president in living memory. Bush was warm and consoling, firm and pure in his religious conviction, and utterly without a trace of hubris. His tears were our tears, our grief his. It was, in short, a speech about others, not about himself. He did not have to tell us that he felt our pain precisely because it was obvious that he did.
The president’s address to Congress and the nation a few days later was equally magnificent, a brilliant speech wonderfully delivered—fully the match for, and arguably superior to, Franklin Roosevelt’s address following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Bush was by turns resolute, compassionate, instructive, and reassuring. When he said, “I will not forget this wound to our country, or those who inflicted it,” we knew he meant it. We all went to bed that night convinced that the right man was in the right place at the right time. When, where, and how we respond remains to be determined, but the president left no doubt that justice will be done. Those who danced in the streets of Nablus on September 11 would do well to pay attention.