Our national debate about a missile-shield system was dealt a cruel, ironic blow: We had busily prepared for the most advanced kind of warfare, but we encountered death and ruin in unexpected ways. Terror is never subtle, and the choices of Tuesday's targets were emblematic of our power and accomplishments. For our wealth and success, there was the World Trade Center. For our military power, what better than the Pentagon, the citadel of our military might? America sits astride the world, but success begets its nemesis, and in distant places a hatred spreads, deadly notions that there would be deliverance for desperate places were we to let their world be, were we to let the rulers we befriend face their people without our might and our shelter. In East Jerusalem, some Palestinian drivers honked in triumph when they learned of America's calamity, and merchants handed out sweets to passersby.
The hardest thing for Americans—an optimistic breed—to fathom is the deep, relentless hatred others harbor for this land and its ways. In matters large and small, the world Americanizes by the day, offering evidence of unbounded American success. Yet a belief takes hold in far lands that our message and example imperil their world. "The snake is America," the Saudi-born financier of terror, Osama bin Laden, tells acolytes and recruits. "We have to cut off the head of the snake." Sadly, there is a deadly receptivity to this message. For nearly a quarter century, ever since the tribune of the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, appeared as a pied piper of the disinherited, a wrath has blown through vast stretches of the Muslim world.
The anti-Americanism blows at will—an alibi for socioeconomic ills with deep roots, a simplifying answer for populations drawn to a civilization they can neither master nor reject. Preachers, the wholesalers of terror, make of this country a demon. The U.S. Navy monitors the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, and the eastern Mediterranean, protecting the flow of oil. Raging on those shores, though, is an unyielding hatred of America. Places once remote have been hurled into an uneven modernity.
Holy campaign. The last time around, in 1993, when the World Trade Center was hit by a truck bomb, the deed was incited by a preacher, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, from a small oasis town on the edge of Egypt's Western Desert. He had found his disciples, young drifters, half-educated men, who had made their way to Brooklyn and Jersey City. In an earlier age, waves of immigrants fled the fires and failures of distant lands and were eager for deliverance. But Rahman's recruits were deadly, resentful men who brought the fire with them and carried an animus for this land. Odds are that Tuesday's cruel affair was carried out by men of an identical bent. Millennial passions, new machines, liberties of travel, and an ease in the great Western capitals have hatched a monstrous new world.
Terror has grown more brazen: Last October, in a deed most likely committed by bin Laden's followers, two men in a rubberized motorboat struck a destroyer, the USS Cole, in the port of Aden. The men aboard the dinghy stood erect at the moment of the blast, as if in some kind of salute. It is past understanding, this will to die. But "martyrdom" and its sanctification have emerged as a kind of rebuke to modernity's conceit and to the exaltation of self that lies at the heart of our modern culture of individualism. A pilot-terrorist willingly—indeed gladly—crashes into a tower of steel and glass. A man knowingly walks into a pizzeria in West Jerusalem and bombs himself and others to death. The commentary, the comprehension, can never fully take in all that. Are these men like us, or do they belong to a different breed? The experts will pick over what we missed, the failure of our human intelligence, the failure to read this or that hidden message that bin Laden sent in our direction. But we should not lose our way: There is a generalized hatred that nourishes the terrorists, grants them indulgence, sees them as just avengers.
Our leaders vow retribution. They have no choice. The country's sense of violation and its anger demand it. But come what may, the eerie silence that settled in on "the city that never sleeps" as that sad Tuesday drew to a close marked a divide in the American soul. Hitherto, it had been possible to entertain the idea of a relative immunity to the hells and furies of distant lands. No more can we think in such ways. The "newness" and innocence of America now belong to an irretrievable past.