The first thing that Americans must do when confronting the moral implications of the attacks on New York and Washington is to stop calling them a "tragedy." The word is inadequate, having been cheapened by overuse, and strictly speaking it is inapt. In the original sense, a tragedy is not simply a dreadful event or terrible calamity but one that befalls a great man as the result of his own flaw, the effect on the audience being to elicit pity and terror. But our enemies today did not aim for a catharsis. They meant to terrorize America, to dispirit us by fear, to leave us stupefied and paralyzed.
The consequences of these attacks are tragic, of course, in the broad contemporary sense of the term, but that sense is so broad as to be morally neutral. If the World Trade Center towers had collapsed due to an earthquake we would be calling that event tragic, too. Granted, it's hard to tear oneself away from the terrible human toll, but to take a proper moral and political view of these attacks we must focus not merely on their consequences but on the intentions behind the actions. These were wicked acts; savage, cruel, and evil.
President Bush called them cowardly, which they were. Unprovoked and unannounced attacks on unarmed civilians and peacetime soldiers could hardly be called brave. Yet in another sense these death strokes were anything but cowardly; they were daring and ruthless and, for the men who took over the planes and steered them into their targets, suicidal. These qualities amount to a kind of sham courage. We should not delude ourselves into believing that the foes we face are a bunch of clever cowards.
In fact, however, that is what they think of us. The terrorists have persuaded themselves that Americans are a nation of rich, clever cowards, who are willing to kill but not to die for their country and its interests. From Hiroshima to Somalia, from Vietnam to the Sudan, America has sought to conserve its sons and to do its killing with the most efficient technology possible. This long-range, antiseptic approach to warfare reached its apogee in the Persian Gulf War and especially in President Clinton's pinprick attacks on Iraq, Sudan, and selected terrorist bases; our willingness to suffer casualties reached its nadir in our panicky withdrawal from Somalia and our super-cautious deployments in Kosovo.
Leaving aside the merits of any of these engagements, from them many of our enemies around the globe drew the conclusion that America was a technological colossus but a moral midget. And so the terrorists did what shrewd but outgunned enemies always do: They used our strengths against us, jujitsu-style. They lacked airplanes that could reach American targets, so they took over ours and used them against us. They lacked smart bombs and missiles and so they turned our own commercial airliners into smart bombs and missiles, guided not by cool machines but by resolute human beings willing to ride the weapons right into a fiery death. And that was precisely the moral point the terrorists wanted to drive home: that they were willing not only to kill but to die for their unholy cause.
America's response to these wicked attacks must be righteous indignation. It is mainly up to President Bush to express that indignation in noble and searing words, and to join with Congress in striking with a terrible, swift sword against the nation's enemies. Thousands of Americans have already fallen in today's sneak attacks. Hundreds now risk their lives trying to save the trapped and injured. Our enemies underestimate American courage, forgetting that American democracy has ever been a fighting faith.