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In the wake of tragedy, a strong nation must act



Published: Wed, September 12, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Yesterday it was the pictures that horrified a nation.

Pictures of an airliner crashing into the World Trade Center at hundreds of miles per hour, creating a fire ball that eventually consumed a symbol of American commerce. Pictures of bodies falling 50 or 60 stories through the air toward death on a New York sidewalk. Pictures of firefighters and office workers and news reporters covered in soot and dust, gasping for air. Pictures of a gaping hole in the side of the Pentagon, a symbol of American might.

Today it is the stories. As reporters sort out the events of Tuesday, taking their viewers and readers beyond the images, there are stories of husbands, wives, sons and daughters who managed to make a last cell phone call to tell someone, "I love you." There are stories of terrorists who got pilots to open the cabin door by slaughtering flight crew members with razor blades. There's a story that some passengers on the United Airlines flight that crashed near Somerset, Pa., decided to try to take the plane back from the hijackers. That decision may have caused the plane to crash, but it almost surely saved a Washington, D.C., landmark, possibly the White House or the Capitol.

And then there are the numbers. President Bush said only that the death toll will be in the thousands. It is known that 266 persons died on the four hijacked airplanes. As many as 300 New York City firefighters and nearly 100 police officers are classified as missing. Estimates of the toll at the Pentagon range from 100 to 800. And it appears almost certain that thousands died in the fires and collapse of the World Trade Center buildings.

In the coming days, there will be more pictures, more stories, more numbers. There will be pictures of grieving families at funerals. Stories about investment and insurance companies -- some of them among the nation's largest -- that have been crippled by the loss of their headquarters and key personnel. And numbers will be attached to the death toll, the monetary loss and the long-term effects of this act of terrorism on the U.S. and world economies.

The question: And through it all, there will be for many Americans, if not most, a nagging question in the back of their minds: When is somebody going to pay for this?

In his speech to the nation Tuesday night, President Bush said: "The search is underway for those who are behind these evil acts. I've directed the full resources for our intelligence and law enforcement communities to find those responsible and bring them to justice. We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them."

But retribution must not only be sure, it must be swift. We're not asking the president to rush to judgment, but neither should he feel the need to assemble a case that would withstand the scrutiny of a Dream Team of defense lawyers. Once a reasonable case is made, the president must act.

This is not only because the American people -- indeed, the civilized world -- demand justice. It is important for bands of terrorists and the rogue states that give them sanctuary to know that they will pay a heavy price for attacking the United States. And the best way of keeping a terrorist from striking the United States again is to kill him.

If that sounds harsh, so be it. As we stated yesterday, the attacks of Sept. 11 were a declaration of war against the United States. And a declaration of war demands nothing less than the ultimate response.

Change needed: Beyond the immediate need to respond to these terrorists, is the need for the United States to become more aggressive and more efficient in its intelligence gathering.

This has been a dark hour for the CIA. This band of terrorists was well trained, well organized and well placed to carry out a complicated mission on American soil. For them to be able to complete such an operation without our agents having a clue of what was to come exposes the CIA as a dysfunctional institution.

The president and Congress must address the shortcomings of the U.S. intelligence community now, because even greater threats to American security than Tuesday's airliner attacks exist.

If the nation is reeling now, imagine the reaction if a terrorist group or a terrorist nation got its hands on an atomic weapon that could turn Atlanta into a wasteland, or a boxful of anthrax that could wipe out the population of Portland, or a drum of poison that could contaminate the water supply of St. Louis.

The only way to stave off such threats to national security is through effective espionage, alone and in concert with our allies. The United States can't run and it can't hide. The best it can do is to protect itself and its way of life.

That, by the way, is also the best way that a grieving nation can pay tribute to those who lost their lives Tuesday. We cannot bring them back. We can do little to ease the pain of their loved ones. But we can vow to do our best as a nation to see that this never happens again.




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