We may not know for many days yet how high the human casualties of Tuesday's attacks will mount. But we should take care that some of our country's basic values don't fall casualty to the attacks, too. Things like our capacity to reason calmly, our sense of caring for one another, and a basic optimism that - in spite of these horrifying acts -there are still things we can do to make the world a better place.
As I walked around my small city here in central Virginia on Tuesday, I was struck by how united everyone here seemed in their grief, and how gently people were treating one another. It was as if we were all family, and perhaps in a sense we were. And maybe we all still need time to come to terms with the horrifying dimensions of our country's loss.
So we grieve. We offer comfort to the bereaved and thanks to the rescuers, and set about the business of repair. But as we do so, we must start thinking about what our country should do to try to ensure that such a cataclysm of hate-filled violence is never again hurled against our shores.
Where does such hate come from? Hate that led the planners and perpetrators of the attacks to hijack civilian planes and then - unprecedentedly - to turn the aircraft, their fuel tanks, and their entire payload of civilian families, into enormous and deadly weapons aimed against further huge concentrations of human beings, nearly all of them civilians.
The distinction between active-duty military people and civilians is a central one in the annals of international law, which spells out the lengths to which anyone engaged in military activity must go in order to avoid causing even "collateral" damage to civilians. Many military bodies, including our own, sometimes fall short of the requirement to try actively to avoid doing so. But for any organization to set out deliberately to target many thousands of civilians, as the authors of these attacks did, is a whole new level of cruelty. In international law, this level of wrongdoing goes by the name of "war crimes," or "crimes against humanity."
But having named these acts as such - what then?
Perhaps we can get some perspective on this problem by looking back at the Nuremberg Trials of 1945-46; they were the victorious Allies' approach to the authors of the Holocaust. In August 1946, after 10 months of hearing the trials' horrifying evidence about the scope of Nazi brutality, the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, "The Nazi crimes, it seems to me, explode the limits of the law.... For these crimes, no punishment is severe enough. It may well be essential to hang Goering [the top defendant], but it is totally inadequate."
The same might be said of the people who planned and carried out the attacks against New York's World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon.
But although using a lawyerly approach to Hermann Goering and his henchmen may have seemed "inadequate" to Dr. Arendt at the time, it also turned out to be a very smart thing to do. The other main approaches suggested by Allied leaders for dealing with the Nazi leaders were all ones of massive retaliation. British leader Winston Churchill argued for a broad campaign of summary executions. The Soviets called for some 50,000 executions. An American cabinet member, Henry Morgenthau Jr., argued for dismantling all of German industry, and turning the whole country back into farmland.
But wiser heads prevailed. As they prepared for final victory in 1945, Presidents Roosevelt and Truman were careful to keep their reaction to the Nazi leaders measured, and to confine it within the limits of a strictly "legal" process.
Meanwhile - and this was equally important - they did what they could to rehabilitate the broad base of German society, and to rebuild Germany as a tolerant and robust democracy at peace with the rest of the democratic world.
That effort worked. Spectacularly. (As even Hannah Arendt was forced to admit.)
A similarly far-sighted and nuanced response is what we need today.
I still don't know who the masterminds of our "Black September" attacks were. But once additional information becomes available, President Bush should do what he can to fashion a targeted response that punishes those responsible, while taking care to avoid collateral damage and overkill.
And meantime, he should continue holding out an active hand of friendship to all the world's peoples - without exception. Blaming any one national or religious group for the wrongdoing of a small number of its members would be as foolish today as it would have been, in 1945, to try to punish all the Germans.
That route had already been tried in Germany, remember, at the end of World War I. It was a disaster. It stoked the resentment felt by many Germans in the 1920s and 1930s, and just fed into a continuing cycle of pain and violence. The more discriminating approach of 1945-46 was smarter, and much, much more successful.
It was also the right thing to do. In 1945 - and today.
• Helena Cobban is a veteran journalist who has published five books on international issues.
Return to: Articles list Home-page