VOLUME 33, NUMBER 4 THURSDAY, September 20, 2001

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Michael Frisch is a professor of history and a senior research scholar.

Many are comparing the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Is this a fair comparison?

Obviously yes, and just as obviously no. And since the comparison is inevitable, the more important question is whether it is helpful or useful. I think it is—but only up to a point that has already been reached. It helps us cope with the immediate shock, pain and fear, and to recall another moment of unity, dedication and purpose in response. Beyond that, everything is so different the analogy provides little or no guidance now. And it risks distracting us from the immense effort of reflection, imagination and reconnection required if we—and others around the world who have been suffering from terrorism longer than and with as much pain as we—are to come together to exclude it.


Is there a new kind of patriotism brewing in America as a result of these terrorist attacks?

I certainly hope so, though so far it is the more traditional nationalistic form that has sustained and given courage to most Americans. This is important, but if we face some profoundly new 21st century type of "war," as Secretary (of Defense Donald) Rumsfeld has said, then I sense we desperately need to imagine and construct a similarly new 21st century patriotism, one that connects us to people around the world rather than isolates us from them, that sees our mutual interdependence as the source of our horrific vulnerability—and the crucial resource for our survival.

What kinds of things should we be concerned about in the wake of these events? Do you think an excessive need for retribution will overtake Americans?

I would like to believe that together with people around the world, we all are moving, rapidly, through stages of comprehension, digestion and, hopefully, understanding. We now confront a landscape that is in one sense profoundly altered. In another sense, we're walking around, dazed, in a world that has been there for a long time, filled with other walkers, but usually seen by Americans only from the height of our own twin towers of privilege and safety. Timothy McVeigh was one of "us," last Tuesday's murderers were evidently "others"—somehow, I pray that this unwanted, sustained confrontation with the face of evil will lead us to more introspection, and to a community beyond those categories with the most immediate, reflexive appeal.

How can we understand the differentiation between the various groups involved—between fundamentalists and terrorists?

By trying to avoid falling into questions like this. Does it help us to ask what kind of Christian Hitler was? Or Timothy McVeigh? Is it helpful to invoke a community of "various groups" that links all pro-life activists to the assassin of Barnett Slepian? One potentially great cost of our naming this a "war" is the loss of our capacity to name and marginalize terrorism as such—and to join in a worldwide effort to exclude it from any spectrum of politics, religion or human community.

What do you think is the most important thing to keep in mind as we try to cope with the events of recent days?

We're all of us over the edge, in uncharted territory. It's humbling and terrifying, and I'm impatient with anyone presuming to monitor or prescribe what anyone else should think or feel, at least initially. As for me, in my faith's High Holidays this week, I'll be praying for strength, understanding and a widening sense of human community in the face of our collective vulnerability. And I feel that as in all religions, humility in the face of terror is a pretty good place to start. I was listening to a favorite old record recently, and the following verse from one song has been coming back to me, insistently, all this week. It has, for me, gotten closer than anything else I've read or heard to the core of this dark passage. I'm finding it important to touch this fear, since it is what we all share, around the world. And this realization helps me imagine reaching for ways in which we can, together, move through and beyond terror.

"Dear little animal dark-eyed and small
Caring for your fur with pointed paws
This hawk of truth is swift and flies with a still cry
A small sweetmeat to the eyes of night"

—Robin Williamson, "Maya"

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