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If U.S. responds with justice, terrorists win


Terrorism resembles jujitsu, the martial art that turns an enemy’s strength and weaknesses against himself. Terrorism aims to provoke harsh government reactions revoking freedom, invading privacy and alienating citizens. Terrorists may goad governments into wars across borders. Terrorism amplifies and feeds upon fear and distrust.

We can -- we must -- seek justice for these fanatical murderers of thousands of innocent Americans. However, we must proceed firmly with a measured response that is neither hasty nor arrogant. Justice -- not rage, hate or revenge -- must temper our response, lest we use our extraordinary firepower to destroy innocents. Then, terrorist jujitsu wins, and we pay our enemies the highest compliment of imitation. We become what we profess to despise.

In one of our “purest” wars, World War II, both the English and we condemned the Nazis for their “barbaric” saturation bombing of noncombatants -- men, women and children -- in English cities. We protested until we had enough planes to do the same thing, creating firestorms that sucked and scorched the life from thousands of noncombatant men, women and children in German cities. Those were not our finest hours.

President Bush countered the terrorist jujitsu by widespread consultation and consensus before responding militarily. Most important, the president’s desire to shape an enduring antiterrorist coalition of friends and former foes could far exceed whatever is -- or is not -- accomplished in Afghanistan. A permanent coalition could interdict terror across borders and destroy sanctuaries for fanatics. A similar strategy helped protect international flights in the Cold War. However, building a successful coalition requires our patient and sustained support. Peace of any kind is hard work.

Meanwhile, let us take stock. Many Americans see the attacks as a single terrible “event,” hoping time will ease our shock and grief. Terrorism is not an event; it is a process.

Our economy has taken a trillion-dollar hit. The economic aftershocks are just emerging. One example: tourism. Airline travel trickled. The hotel/lodging business is off 30 to 50 percent in major urban centers. This affects bars, restaurants, retail and specialty shops, entertainment and ground transport and eventually production of many goods and services. Unemployment, loan defaults, broken leases, exhausted capital will arrive with recession force for some time and much longer if there are additional attacks.

To punish, prevent or minimize attacks, the U.S. attorney general seeks fewer restraints on surveillance. The president proposes tracing and neutralizing terrorist funds, mobility and communications. Law enforcement clearly needs some latitude.

However, proposals opening phone conversations, e-mail and personal banking and financial records to multiple agencies with questionable accountability affects us all. This has great potential for the abuses, fear and paranoia terrorist jujitsu seeks to achieve.

Both in the short and long term, we now must draw upon reserves of character too long idle. Without integrity as a people, we aid and abet terrorists by failing to hold government and ourselves accountable.

For too long we have winked and chuckled about (and elected) politicians with tattered morals. We have enough citizens in grinding poverty to fill 20 large cities. We are often pragmatic, greedy, mendacious and selfish. We struggle with racism, ageism, sexism and ethnic discrimination.

Our leaders have not helped. Congress, itself enjoying superlative health insurance and retirement benefits, consistently denies health coverage to millions of our disadvantaged. Campaign reform languishes, and politicians accept huge donations from pharmaceutical, energy, tobacco, and other special interest groups for legislative favors.

We substitute polls for principles. We take our blessings -- including peace -- for granted and as our due. We arrogantly parade our power, wealth and conspicuous consumption. We make a tempting target.

Still, hope is not dead. In the wake of Sept. 11, our compassionate outpouring of grief and support for the dead and injured, our turning to prayer, unprecedented giving, even our just anger, all give evidence that our values are not dead, only dormant. The terrorist challenge calls us back to basic values in our great and fruitful land.

We may not get another chance.

Jesuit Fr. Robert J. Mahoney is a professor and chairman of the sociology department at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo. He wrote this for The Kansas City Star, and it is reprinted with permission of the Star.

National Catholic Reporter, October 19, 2001