As I write, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City have crumbled before our eyes, we have seen a plane pass through a skyscraper, and the Pentagon has been pierced to its inner courtyard. Tens of thousands of people are presumed dead and injured, other airplanes are down or missing, schools and public buildings are closed across the country, and Americans are stunned. For many of us it is as though this tragedy had occurred, not hundreds or thousands of miles away, but in our family rooms at home.

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Common sense and past experience assigns these tragic events to a concerted terrorist attack. Terrorism is designed to accomplish a single end: to prove to a large, secure population that it is not invulnerable. It is generally launched by those who feel they have no other means or representation to make their situation felt. It is the ultimate failure of human communication, the poison pen letter sent without a name.

This event signals a massive failure of the intelligence community, too, a community that always seems to be staring intently in the wrong direction just when the next disaster strikes. Thus, in 1995, the Oklahoma bombing was laid at the door of an undefined Arab source, until we learned some days later that the perpetrators came from within. This most recent tragedy required three things: a number of trained pilots prepared to die for their cause; a set of easily acquired flight charts; and a poor security system that permitted the perpetrators access to commercial aircraft. This may have been well coordinated, but it is not particularly sophisticated. Certainly it could not be described as "high tech."

As the force of this "second Pearl Harbor" sinks in, anything could happen in the government, society, and collective psyche of the country. It is worth recollecting at this point that both the media and individuals should shy away from generalizations that can only incriminate innocent people and aid and abet the perpetrators. The usual assumption will no doubt emerge, linking these events to the "Middle East" and to "Islam."


In light of this, a quick surf of the Internet shows that all the responsible groups representing American Muslims in this country have already chosen to stand as Americans with their fellow citizens in this difficult time. A few hours into this awful event, they are rightly calling for justice. They are offering their resources to help the victims of these intolerable acts. They are asking their brothers and sisters to channel all official statements through legitimate, authorized spokespeople and to offer support to victims of these attacks. They are praying to God to protect the country and their fellow citizens. In short, they are behaving as thoughtful human beings.

Many millions of decent Americans happen to be Muslims. They attend U.S. schools, serve society as lawyers, doctors, waiters, and cabbies. Yet they are routinely mistaken for terrorists and have often been the targets of painfully misdirected threats and accusations.

We need to remember the simplest things in such a crisis as this one: that no matter who committed these atrocities, they are very likely a handful of people marching under a banner they have ripped from the hands of others without consent. That flag may be an American flag or a Star and Crescent, or some other symbol. It is a piece of cloth in which they have wrapped their nightmare, not an accurate representation of democracy or Islam. When we think of the Ku Klux Klan we do not think of Christianity, although the cross has been its chosen symbol for over a century.

Terrorism only wins when it forces others to abandon their own best principles.
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