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'Tragedy,' not 'terrorism,' should have come to mind



Published: Tue, November 13, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Did anyone who saw pictures of the thick black smoke rising from the wreckage of a jetliner in Queens Monday have any first thought other than "not again?"

It is a commentary on how America has come to view airline crashes. Where once the weather or pilot error or mechanical failure would have been the risk factors to come to mind when an airplane fell from the sky, now it is terrorism.

All early indications point to Monday's crash of American Airlines Flight 587 being an accident, some kind of catastrophic equipment failure that caused the plane to break up in mid-air minutes after taking off. The National Transportation Safety Board has maintained jurisdiction in the investigation, rather than turn it over to the FBI as it would do if the cause of the crash were strongly suspected of being a criminal act.

Small consolation: Whatever caused the crash is of little consolation to the families and friends of the 260 passengers and crew on the plane or the half dozen people dead or missing in homes struck by debris. For those families, this is a tragic loss of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters.

They are now in the nation's thoughts and prayers.

Still, the rest of us are human, and there was, no doubt, a national sense of relief as news reports through the day leaned more and more away from terrorism and toward the mechanical.

In New York, three airports were shut down for much of the day and bridges and tunnels leading to the city were closed for a brief precautionary period. These are things that would not have happened just over two months ago on the basis of an airplane crash.

By the same token, over the years this newspaper has written any number of editorials noting the tragic loss involved in an airplane crash, but none has had the underlying message of this one -- that the crash was bad, but it would have been worse were it believed to be another act of terror.

Rising toll: In so many ways, we are still learning just how much of a toll the terrorists who struck September 11 exacted on this nation. They have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams in not only killing individual Americans, but in making millions upon millions of others redefine their lives.

This is not a good thing. Each time Americans find themselves viewing life through the eyes of a victim of terror, they must resist. That is not to say that Americans should go through life as if nothing happened September 11. That would be foolhardy and -- worse -- callow.

But we should try harder when there is a tragedy such as the crash of Flight 587 to think first of the human toll -- not the political, economic and social implications. When we do that, we strengthen our sense of humanity. We strike a blow against the terrorists who would change American life forever if we allowed them to do so.




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