Watching the second tower of the World Trade Center crumble into dust on Tuesday, I was able to imagine the horror of the survivors of the Titanic as they witnessed their vessel sink into the Atlantic Ocean. A symbol of human progress and ingenuity, a monument to economic strength and power, the Titanic was regarded as indestructible. So too the World Trade Center represented, more than any other edifice in the United States, America's sense of its own power and invulnerability. Rising more than 100 stories high, these towers once so effectively dominated the New York skyline that in the air they could be seen from 150 miles away. When a 1993 car bomb failed to destroy them, the sense of invulnerability may have also given way to a sense of complacency.
Yet, fortune does not always smile on its most blessed sons. When terror struck, with a magnitude never experienced before, there was not a citizen in this country who was prepared for it. With thousands of deaths, a shut down of cities and a halt to financial activity throughout the country, it has delivered the kind of paralyzing blow that we only read about in books or see in movies. Never has it been internalized as such a genuine threat to the American way of life.
There are good reasons for this. For two centuries, the United States mainland has stood aloof from depredations in other parts of the world, its stateside population certain in the knowledge that time, distance and deterrence would save it from invasion or attack. But the average U.S. citizen has never reckoned on the reality of foreign suicide bombers who could hijack commercial airplanes and turn them into missiles that target centers of American finance and defense.
Yet the world is changing and with the Sept. 11 hijackings, no one should now doubt that the bombings represent a watershed in history. The attack was correctly characterized by the American president as an attack on freedom. But it is much more than even that. It is an attack on our very concept of humanity and represents a clash of civilizations and worldviews that cannot be bridged through peace talks, appeasement or negotiation.
Just ask the Israelis. Over the past 10 years, they have absorbed scores of suicide bombings. In Israel, a country of six million, the death of 20 people is the equivalent of 3,500 in the United States. The recent frequency of these attacks has pounded its way through the consciousness of a people who no longer believe in Yasser Arafat's empty gestures of peace, but see him as an aider and abettor of Islamic terror. That was confirmed on Tuesday when television footage showed Palestinians celebrating in the streets of Nablus and Gaza City. The Israeli assessment is identical in tone to what many analysts and commentators on the right have said for years: Muslim extremists and the radical Arab regimes that harbor them represent the gravest peril to safety and security in western civilization.
That being the case there is no time to waste in lengthy debates on the failure of the intelligence agencies or setting limits on the level of retaliation. The U.S. government must act immediately and decisively to close down the offices of Islamic fundamentalist organizations in the United States. It must move to block their financial pipelines by freezing assets; it should identify the bankers of these terrorists and force them to divest. It should make clear to the international community that there is no sitting on the fence in the war against terrorism. You are either a soldier in the war, or you are an enemy. That includes Switzerland, who often acts as a conduit for terrorist funding.
Moreover, those who harbor Islamic fundamentalists and perpetrators of terror should be made to feel the full force of American economic and military retaliation -- Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria and the Palestinian Authority, to name just a few. It should not be forgotten that even if arch-terrorists such as Osama bin Laden, the most likely culprit of the Tuesday bombings, are eliminated, there will be others to take their place. Emasculating the ability of these terrorists to lord over their global network is the first step in interfering with the kind of intricate logistics that made Tuesday's bombings possible.
The New York landscape may well have changed, but so has the psychological landscape of the United States. Much like the German sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States stands on the brink of decisive and historic action. But failure to make clear to the rest of the world that this American tragedy is in truth the entire civilized world's, may hamper this action and give encouragement to the perpetrators of terror.