Don't Let Them Win

Bill Mann had to wait for several hours to discover the fate of several of his relatives who were directly in the path of Tuesday's violence. While he is angry and hears the clarion call for revenge, he asks Americans not to allow either the thirst for vengeance or the fear for safety to strip away that which makes this nation great.

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By Bill Mann (TMF Otter)
September 13, 2001

I'll leave the breathless superlatives to others. Tuesday was just a horrible, horrible day. The next few will be worse.

For several interminable hours I was left wondering whether two of my family members were alive. In this wait, I joined hundreds of thousands of people. Some are still waiting, while others are now discovering what they hoped against hope was not true: Their loved ones are gone.

My story was sadly unremarkable on this one day. Just after 9:00 a.m. my wife, a State Department employee who had stayed home to take our daughter to preschool orientation, told me two planes had hit the World Trade Center. Her sister uses the World Trade Center subway stop every day, and works across the street at American Express. Naturally, our calls to her went unanswered.

We did not hear from her until the mid-afternoon. She was directly beneath the tower when the second plane hit, and had to run for her life from the debris.

My brother, meanwhile, had boarded a morning flight out of Dulles Airport, one that departed within minutes of the one that was hijacked and crashed into the Pentagon. We did not know his whereabouts until mid-afternoon, either. 

I am nobody special, and there is not much reason in the world that I or my family would be the targets of terrorist attacks -- and yet, there we were, completely helpless, wondering if our loved ones were safe. My family members were placed at risk for the crimes of going to work, getting on a flight, and being American. I feel lucky and yet unmercifully angry.

But if we live the remainder of our lives in fear and trepidation -- if we react in the spirit of vengeance instead of justice -- we will have given the terrorists what they wanted. We will have let them win.

The Oxford Dictionary defines "terror" as "intense, overpowering fear." This is what a terrorist seeks to achieve: to make us afraid. But he cannot succeed if we do not let him. He can take our loved ones; he can cause us to make deliberate change in our actions; but unless we give him the power, he cannot take away our humanity.

How can I say this? Aren't I angry? You're damned right I'm angry. I drove over a hill Tuesday only to find Alexandria, home of The Motley Fool, covered in dark smoke from the crash at the Pentagon. Someone brought a war to my doorstep, and before this is over I am sure someone I know will have perished. The same is true for many Americans. The attacks hit two cities, but people from everywhere live in both Washington and New York. The terrorists picked perfect targets.

But their inhumanity should not compromise our own humanity. Thousands of innocent people were lost to a hatred not of their own making, and in some places around the world this was cause for celebration. I submit that those poor souls who cheered the carnage have been lost to hatred as well, a loss all the more pathetic because they willingly embraced that hate. They are not dead, but they might as well be.

There are strong suspicions that Muslim extremists are responsible for the attack. This may turn out to be the case, but if we treat fellow American citizens who happen also to be Muslim or Arab with undue suspicion or hatred, we are descending to the level of those who have tried to hurt us. Some horrid things, remember, have been undertaken under the banner of Christianity as well. We should not react to terrorists by becoming terrorists ourselves.

The U.S. will never be quite the same after Tuesday's attacks. Our sense of security, which wasn't destroyed by the bombing in Oklahoma City or the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, has been roughly torn away. But this is not a time to hate. This is not a time to attempt to restrict the freedoms Americans enjoy. Rather, this is a time to mourn, a time to reflect upon what it is that the terrorists were trying to take away from us -- and refuse to let them have it.

Of course the terrorists' primary objective was to maximize the loss of life and hit the U.S.' political, financial, and military cores. In this regard, Tuesday represented a smashing success for them. But they also wanted to destabilize this country, to cause Americans such psychological damage that our influence worldwide would be reduced and our standard of life at home would suffer. The terrorists expect us to do the worst damage to ourselves. They expect us to live in fear, to be suspicious of others, and to limit our own freedoms.

Don't let them win.

My friends -- some of whom are now afraid of flying, or are thinking about moving out of Washington in fear for their safety -- and I want those responsible to pay dearly. Some think of it as revenge, but I think of it as an impending reckoning. If the terrorists believed they were doing God's work, I'm pretty sure they will soon learn just how wrong they are.

In the meantime life, and all of its beauty and ugliness, will go on. The holes in the Pentagon and the downtown New York will disappear. The trees in Pennsylvania will grow back. And many questions about how we can prevent such an attack will be asked. Although changes in security measures are a guaranteed response, just as likely is that the question of total prevention will be answered with "we can't."

How we respond will define the long-term effectiveness of the terrorists' acts. Tuesday, they won, but Americans are already fighting back by helping the relief efforts. And when our military has repaid the terrorists' favor 100 times over, I hope we rebuild the World Trade Center exactly as it was. It would be the best tribute to those who were lost, and a perfect way to tell those who hate: "You will never beat us."

Bless you all.

Bill Mann, TMFOtter on the Motley Fool Discussion Boards

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