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A Source of Power Also Brings a Sense of Frailty

Where do you even begin?

If it were possible, there would be nothing in this space but the names of those who died without cause. No words of mine or anyone else’s can mean as much.

We wake up to an attack, jetliners making Hollywood obsolete as they crash-dive into the World Trade Center towers.

We wake up to see the Pentagon, the most secure building in the free world, lighted by flames and fearing another hit from an unknown enemy.

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We wake up to what may be the defining moment of our lives, and where it will lead, no one knows.

An untested president was holed up in a bunker at midmorning, missing in action for most of the biggest day of his life.

Afghanistan was hit with explosions by day’s end, and it was too soon to know who was responsible. Our entire country was shut down, jetliners falling out of the sky, and we didn’t even know who was after us.

What do you tell your children?

What do you tell yourself?

In recent years, there was a security drill for those going up to the restaurant and bar on the top floor of One World Trade Center. They made you check your bags and coat at one end of the lobby and you went through a metal detector at the other end.

But there was no defense for the unimaginable.

You took first one, and then another elevator into the clouds. The sky is the limit, those twin towers of American wealth and braggadocio screamed to the world. Go ahead and hit me, they taunted with New York swagger.

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From the top, New York City was a wraparound toy, and the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island were souvenirs on the apron of New York Harbor.

It was a grand, awe-inspiring view, and it took your breath away. But standing atop a target hit by terrorists in 1993, you were aware of our vulnerability as well as our power.

And now we have horrific proof positive that the most powerful military in the history of the planet is not equipped to protect its greatest symbols of economic wealth and military might.

Now we have the indelible memory of people hurling themselves from the towers, and the nauseating cries of fear and death.

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Now we know that while we blow billions on a cockamamie missile defense system, the enemy is sneaking across the border, slipping past airport security, moving in next door.

How do you fight that war?

Do you never get on a plane again?

Do you begin to suspect the neighbor?

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Do you empty the Social Security fund and kick it over to intelligence?

There’s no telling where it goes next, but there is already talk of retaliation. The problem is that the enemy is not a country, or a thing, but an idea. The idea that it is we who are evil.

What we saw Tuesday was war, and in my lifetime, no one has won one. The Middle East is locked in a mad, endless cycle of retaliatory carnage.

In Bosnia, I watched a wounded soldier rushed in from the front lines. His comrades slid him onto a gurney, pushed him into the operating room, and together we watched the life spill out of him.

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Soldiers love to wax about the glory of war, but the truth is that he died for nothing and his family suffers without meaning.

On the border of Iraq, Turkey and Syria, I watched Kurds dig holes in the mud and bury their brothers and sons after they’d been chased to their death by Saddam Hussein.

They died for nothing too.

On Tuesday, thousands died for nothing at the hands of cowards. The targets of this new war are civilians at their desks and airline passengers on the way to work and home. They are lucky to have five seconds to get on the phone and say goodbye to loved ones before death comes without meaning.

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We wake up to madness. And where we go next, no one knows.

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Steve Lopez can be reached at steve.lopez@latimes.com


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