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Editor's Notebook: Questions about America await our answers

| Friday, Sept. 21, 2001

America most likely has been changed forever by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Somerset County. The key questions are: How much• For better or for worse?

As Americans, cans, we will have to provide the answers and it won't be easy.

The horror of the sickening carnage, in which more than 5,300 people are believed to have been killed, will remain with us for some time. If we are wise, we will use that horror to steel our resolve in supporting whatever might have to be done to thwart terrorism here and around the world.

Relying on the anger boiling within us all right now will not toughen our resolve for what is to come. This kind of anger burns too hot to sustain us through what promises to be a prolonged and difficult battle against the forces of darkness that planned and carried out the attacks.

But the horror, that's another story.

Remembering those scenes of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center, the ruins and the desperate, exhausting search for survivors and bodies brings back the horror. But it is amplified when we remind ourselves what we probably knew deep down before this but would never admit, it could happen anywhere in America. The next time it could be the USX Building on a busy work day or Heinz Field packed with Steelers' fans on an autumn Sunday.

The horror stays vivid as you look at your sons and daughters, be they infants or young adults, and remember that those who did this will not hesitate to snuff out these lives so dear to us. We have to get to them before they make that happen. But, we must be careful.

Just as we cannot allow our anger or fear to drive us in fighting back, we cannot allow them to become weapons for those who seek to destroy us and our country. The zealots who planned and carried out this plot want to do more than simply kill Americans, they want tear apart the fabric of American life.

That is where all of us, young and old, regardless of economic standing, race or religion, can step up and join this fight.

Following the terrorist attacks, there was a predictable backlash. Mosques were vandalized, people of Middle Eastern descent, or who looked like they might be were threatened. Over the weekend in Arizona a man shot and killed an Indian immigrant saying, 'I stand for America all the way.'

The people doing these things are not being patriots. On the contrary, they are giving aid and comfort to terrorists everywhere.

The truth is that our greatest enemy may be ourselves. It is a good bet that the terrorists believe - perhaps rightfully so - that Americans are arrogant, ignorant and soft, spoiled by the nation's tremendous bounty and the fact that real hard times - famine, economic depression, war - are something of which the majority of us know nothing.

The thinking is that if they strike fear into America, Americans will turn on each other and self-destruct. That is something we cannot afford to do.

I listened to a radio talk show from out of state over the weekend and heard a caller say that she was an American or as she said, 'not a hyphenated American - you know, Arab-American, African-American,' and questioned whether Arab-Americans will fight for this country.

What this pea-brained individual doesn't seem to realize is that the majority of people in this country are descended from other countries, that we are Italian-American, Irish-American, Polish-American, Russian-American, Chinese-American, Japanese-American and yes, Arab-American and African-American. We keep those hyphenated titles out of a sense of ethnic pride and in celebration of who we are, not out of loyalty to another country or government.

In the mists beyond that caller's little world is the common thread in all those phrases, the word 'American.' The right to be one's self - to think freely and not be cloned in the image sketched by some dictator or totalitarian government - spurred millions of people to come to this country and is the main reason this country is so great.

To be sure, the events of last week are a stunning reminder that we have to be eternally vigilant in defending our country, our freedoms, ourselves. Unfortunately, it seems almost unavoidable that innocent, loyal Americans of Middle Eastern or Third World descent will be looked at warily and some might be subjected to unexpected scrutiny by authorities in the months ahead.

That is a sad by-product of what happened last week and I suppose it is something of a minor victory for the terrorists. But it doesn't mean that we throw away the U.S. Constitution.

To our brother and sister citizens of Middle Eastern ancestry - for we are all truly bonded together as one family - we only can ask for understanding, patience and forgiveness in these times.

But I suspect they will understand and they will be patient as long as law enforcement officials do not trample their rights in a rush to judgment and their fellow Americans treat them with the same respect and dignity as they would any other American.

I think they probably will look on it as a small price to pay to keep our country safe and in the process, teach us all something about patriotism.

Tom Yerace is editor of The Herald.

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