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September 11th, 2001

  Steel and Fire and Stone


I am writing this less than an hour after the U.S.A. was struck by what looks very much like a coordinated wave of terrorist attacks. Two planes, one said to have been hijacked, crashed into the World Trade Center, setting both towers on fire. From my front lawn here in Long Island, thirty miles away, I can see the smoke plume. Something similar seems to have happened at the Pentagon, and the latest news is of a fire on the Mall in Washington D.C. The White House is being evacuated.

It is interesting to watch one's own emotions at such times. I was, as the news broke, writing some editorial matter for the forthcoming issue of the print National Review. The magazine has a section titled "The Week," with brief, pithy paragraphs commenting on the events of the day. We NR editors divvy up the topics, each getting four or five paragraphs to write. My topics were small things, domestic things: sharks, Senator Jeffords, the Little League scandals. I had sat down to this after seeing the kids off to school at the corner of the street, cheery in their bright clothes, lunch boxes in their backpacks. It is a bright, clear, sunny day. Walking back from the school bus, I commented to one of the mothers on the beauty of the morning — clear and bright.

As an event of this horror unfolds before one's eyes, a shift of perspective occurs. Kipling captured it in his magnificent poem on the outbreak of WW1: "For All We Have and Are":

Our world has passed away,
In wantonness o'erthrown.
There is nothing left today
But steel and fire and stone!

Like Kipling, we suddenly know that the distractions of our pleasant, commonplace lives must be set aside for a while. There is a terrible and ruthless enemy. He hates our country, our very culture. He wishes death to us and our children. He is, right now, crowing with glee. His friends and supporters are assembling in their streets, grinning and laughing, cheering and embracing. A blow has been struck at the Great Satan, a mighty blow! Rejoice, rejoice! There are people, millions of them, in the world right now, thinking those thoughts, saying those things.

Once more we hear the word
That sickened earth of old: —
"No law except the sword
Unsheathed and uncontrolled."

This is not an easy enemy to confront. This will not be a matter of great troop movements, of trenches and fleets and squadrons and massed charges. This will be small teams of inconceivably brave men and women, working in strange places, unknown and unacknowledged. But is the same enemy, the same truth, of which Kipling spoke: evil, naked and proud: "a crazed and driven foe." This is what humanity has faced before, since our story began to be written down. This is civilization versus barbarism.

Comfort, content, delight,
The ages' slow-bought gain,
They shrivelled in a night.
Only ourselves remain
To face the naked days
In silent fortitude
Through perils and dismays
Renewed and re-renewed.

Let nobody think that Americans are incapable of facing this foe and defeating him. Let nobody think that this country is any less able to "face the naked days" than she was in 1861, in 1917, in 1941 and 1950. We shall rise to this. We shall take our revenge. We shall absorb these blows, and strike back a hundred times harder. Let America's enemies crow today: tomorrow they will tremble, and weep.