Remembrance And Resolve

By Charles Krauthammer
Friday, September 6, 2002; Page A25

Whenever I hear Sept. 11 referred to as just a tragedy, I wince. The San Francisco earthquake was a tragedy. The Johnstown flood was a tragedy. Hurricane Andrew was a tragedy. A tragedy is an act of God. Sept. 11 was no act of God. It was an act of man. An act of war.

Yes, Sept. 11 occasioned many tragedies -- many terrible deaths, many terrible injuries, many terrible sorrows. These tragedies elicit a deep compassion and a shared grief. Which is why this coming Sept. 11 will be a day of compassion and grief; of sorrow and remembrance; of celebration, too, of the courage and sacrifice of the heroes of that day.

But we would pay such homage had the World Trade Center and the Pentagon collapsed in an earthquake. They did not. And because they did not, more is required than mere homage and respect. Not just sorrow, but renewed anger. Not just consolation, but renewed determination. And not, God help us, "closure," that clarion call to passivity and resignation, but open-ended action against those who perpetrated Sept. 11 and those who would perpetrate the next Sept. 11.

The temptation on any anniversary is to just look back. But on Dec. 7, 1942, the country did not just look back on the sunken Arizona. It looked forward to the destruction of Japan.

Mourning alone cannot fully honor the murdered. Justice must be done as well. The dead of last Sept. 11 cannot be adequately honored unless we remember not just that they died but at whose hands they died. It means remembering that Sept. 11 was a declaration of war, a war we did not seek but one we cannot avoid.

We would like to avoid it. We are tempted to see the war on terrorism as, variously and alternately, won, unwinnable, tangled, indecisive, self-defeating -- anything that takes away its immediacy and its urgency.

It is a healthy instinct in the American soul. Despite the current braying of Europeans and Arabs, Americans are quite averse to war. We have a history of doing what we can to avoid it.

It took three years for the United States to enter World War I. It took a surprise attack to get us into World War II. As for the Cold War, we refused even to face its reality until it had been going on for two years. And after getting burned in Korea and Vietnam, America reverted to form. If Saddam Hussein had not invaded Kuwait in 1990 and if we had not been dragged kicking and screaming into Kosovo, we would now be celebrating the Thirty Years' Peace.

It stands to reason. A continental nation protected by vast oceans and friendly neighbors has no great desire to go abroad in search of monsters. This is why, when Osama bin Laden and radical Islam declared war on the United States in the 1990s, we ignored it. We ignored the declaration as we ignored the provocations -- the first attack on the World Trade Center, the embassy bombings in Africa, the attack on the USS Cole.

After each outrage, a grim president would declare himself aggrieved and pledge not to rest until those responsible were brought to justice. A few FBI agents would then be dispatched to Yemen or some such, a few cruise missiles would land in some desert, and soon he, and we, would return to our repose.

Sept. 11 was different. Yet so deep were these pacific habits of thought that in the first hours high administration officials reverted to the old language of crime, pledging to bring the killers to justice. It soon became clear, however, that the challenge of radical Islam was a matter not of law enforcement but of war. President Bush's address to Congress nine days later ratified that truth. This time we would not just "bring our enemies to justice." We would "bring justice to our enemies." This was war. We would engage it.

This proposition was too obvious for anyone serious to protest. No one serious did. The war in Afghanistan enjoyed breathtakingly broad national support. Yet here we are a year later, and things are different. It doesn't feel like war. The very suddenness and relative painlessness of the victory in Afghanistan, coupled with the fact that at home no second shoe dropped, has helped return us to a state of suspension, of confusion.

We feel the uncertainty. But our enemies do not. Which is why the challenge of this Sept. 11 is to remember the feeling of last Sept. 11. Not just the pain, but the danger. It endures. And so it will until we have destroyed those who did the deed, those who support them and those who would emulate them.

Copyright 2002 The Washington Post Company