About this week, we have come to certain understandings.
We understand that possessing the world's largest economy and mightiest military does not render us invulnerable. We understand the pain and sense of violation that come with a sneak attack on our home soil. We understand that Tuesday's images are now seared on our memories, that like other terrible moments in our national consciousness, each of us will forever remember where we were when we first heard the news. We understand that the terrorist threat is all too real. We understand the "quiet, unyielding rage" that President Bush spoke of from the Oval Office.
These are the immediate understandings that washed over us on that first day of terror and its aftermath. Now we set to work on the sad task of funerals and mourning, of memorials and grief. Tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that, we will come to deeper understandings.
We are hurt, and our desire for retaliation is strong. Yet our national mood is that we must not rush to judgment. When the time for punishment comes, we ought to know unequivocally that we are punishing the right offenders. What's more -- and here's the hard part -- we might come to understand that our retaliation might not satisfy. Missiles fired into a desert camp or a trial resulting in successful convictions will not approach parity for what we have felt, for what we have lost.
President Bush echoed the sentiments of many when he said that "This is not an act of terrorism, this is an act of war." Yet getting a hold on terrorism can be like grabbing a fistful of sand -- the tighter you try to squeeze, the faster it runs through your fingers, grain by grain. In this war, there is no foreign capital to seize, no flag to capture.
We will come to understand the nature of terrorism, and the dismaying fact that we are now caught in its loop. We might look to Israel and England and understand, also, that the simple awareness of this fact is not enough. Acts of retribution beget more terrorism, and acts of conciliation encourage terrorism as a legitimate means of achieving a diplomatic end. This is terrorism's bind, the minefield we need negotiate with intelligence and care.
We will come to understand that we are at war with a group of people, not a people itself. The attack on Pearl Harbor, to which Tuesday's events have been compared, precipitated a shameful chapter in American history in which West Coast Americans of Japanese descent were herded into internment camps.
We must show that we as a nation have grown beyond seeing complicity in skin color or ethnicity.
Finally, we will come to understand what is most precious about the United States, and hold fast to our determination not to lose it in the battle against a shadowy, unseen enemy. The fight against terrorism will demand tighter security, improved intelligence and stricter controls on public accommodations such as transportation.
But we cannot allow this fight to become an assault on our individual and collective liberties. In defense of our freedoms, we will need to keep clear sight of what we are defending.
Ours is a strong nation, made so through providence and hard work. We will endure, even as we grieve our losses. Now comes war, a war unlike any of the past. We can learn from the experience of other nations, and with them seek solidarity.
If we are to mobilize, let us do so with understanding -- and, in so doing, remain strong.
Dan Rather works for CBS News.
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