OUR CHALLENGE: NOT TO CHANGE WHO WE ARE

As the stories mount from the survivors, almost all of them horrific, we hear of an eerie darkness in the middle of the day, a billowing cloud of ash that chased them down the city blocks, enveloped them, swallowed them, left them face down in the street, hands over their heads, fearing their next choking breath would be their last.

“It was pure black,” a survivor named Jennifer Kouzi told me. She had just started a new job at the World Trade Center. Now, Tuesday morning, she was running from its collapse after a hijacked plane plowed into its walls and a new war had begun.

“There was this tidal wave of smoke. It was like a horror movie. People were trampling each other.

“All of a sudden I found myself on the ground. I thought I was going to die. I covered my head with my arms and I prayed that a building wouldn’t fall on me

“Later, when I stood up, I had inhaled such dust and ash I got sick right there. It was like being blind. Pure blackness. I was groping around, I heard a girl crying next to me, and we sort of found each other’s hands . . .”

This was mid-morning. The sun was bright in the sky. Yet here was this young woman, groping blindly, reaching for a stranger’s hand . . .

How do we live now, in this new, unfathomable world where the lights go out in the middle of the day? Is this plane safe? Is this building safe? Is this moment safe, this hour, this sunny day — or can it suddenly turn dark, the way it did on Tuesday in lower Manhattan, at the Pentagon, and in a field in Somerset, Pa.?

How do we live now? It is the question we ask as we head into our first weekend of the new war, as we attempt to right our national posture, to dust ourselves off, to pick ourselves up, as the airports slowly open to the skies, as the markets slowly return to business, as the people slowly emerge from their homes and begin to think about work and school — even as we count the dead from Tuesday’s carnage and the numbers reach into the thousands.

How do we live now?

The drive for revenge

Do we become a war-mongering people, ready to swoop into any foreign land that harbors terrorists, guns ablazing, burn it to the ground? Is that who we become?

For so many years following Vietnam, America lost its taste for combat. The draft was gone. So, too, was any consensus on “national interests.” If a president even suggested sending troops overseas — Somalia, Kuwait — there were far more Americans saying “What for?” than “When do we go?”

This is different. This was home. This was on our shores. This was where we live — not even a military base, like the Pearl Harbor to which it is being compared.

No, this was New York City, and Washington, D.C., and southwestern Pennsylvania. These were workplaces and offices and our nation’s capital. And for the first time in my generation, I am hearing young men declaring, “I want to enlist.”

I am hearing a rustling boom of patriotism, that seems to surge every time TV shows the footage of that 757 cutting a hole in New York’s tallest skyscrapers.

“Let’s get them!” we cry.

But who? And where? There is no army waiting on the other side of the border. There are no tanks or battleships or fighter jets in formation.

There is only a relative handful of fanatics, hiding in basements, moving at night, training in secret, and then brazenly preparing for destruction in the hardest place to find them, the wide open space of America, our own country, stealing ID’s, hiding in plain sight. Some of the hijackers of the four planes Tuesday probably learned to fly them at American flights schools, and lived in comfortable houses in Vero Beach, Fla., where many of our grandparents are enjoying their retirement.

This is not your typical enemy. These are evil men blinded by zealot ideals. They are networked and sheltered by small families and independent cells, one hand unaware of what the other is doing. A battleship may be infinitely more powerful than a single man, but a battleship is also easier to find than a single terrorist, especially one as well-connected as Osama bin Laden, the Saudi exile and chief suspect in this day of tragedy.

“In order to deal with these people, our intelligence will have to be willing to do things it hasn’t done before,” predicted James Woolsley, the former CIA director. “Right now we have rules that deter us from employing anyone with a violent past.

“If you want to recruit someone from bin Laden’s operation who doesn’t have violence in his past, you’re not going to recruit anyone.”

Already there are cries to change the way we do things, to send buckets of money into counter-intelligence. Is that who we will become? Employers of the down and dirty? Enticers of the very scum we abhor? What is our choice? Is there any other way to fight a war waged in the sewers?

How do we live?

The drive for freedom

How do we fly? The airplane has become a fearful thing now. The FAA has instituted new rules, that, in their early hours as airports slowly opened Thursday, seemed designed more to slow things down than make things safe. No curbside baggage. No non-passengers beyond the security checkpoints. No knives allowed anywhere.

And yet, most knowledgeable observers say this is mere window dressing, that to really protect the skies, we’d need trained professionals at every security point, and armed marshals on every plane, and solid cockpit doors that lock, and perhaps pilots carrying handguns.

Is this how we live? Would it make you feel safe? Or would it only make you more aware of the dangers in the air?

And, finally, what of that which we do the best in America, fun, leisure, entertainment?

When do we return? Professional sports were canceled through the weekend, the first time the National Football League has canceled its full slate of Sunday games. No college football, either. No baseball. No home run chase for Barry Bonds. No exhibition hockey.

The Emmy Awards, scheduled for Sunday night, were postponed. Broadway shows are closed. It is not out of fear — let us not let the terrorists, even for a moment, think that — but, rather, out of respect, a chance for us to bury our dead, a chance for us to use one weekend, one Sabbath, a day of rest and reflection, to actually rest and reflect on who we are and how lucky we are to be spending the weekend with those we love.

When you think about that, how hard could you cheer for a touchdown right now, anyhow?

Yet come Monday morning, when we as Americans traditionally go back to work, we will go back to life. And in the end, that is the answer to the question in this column.

We go back. We go back to work, we go back to the stock market, which felt the earth tremble beneath it Tuesday morning, we go back to our schools, our sports, our leisure, we go back to our lives because we are, and let this not sound arrogant to anyone outside America, entitled to them.

How do we live now? We live smarter. We live more aware. We live more compassionately for other nations that face terrorism every day.

But we live freely. We move with our heads high. We smile and we talk and as that darkness in the daytime lifts we see the sun again and soak in the great air of a free country. We never give that up. Because if we give that up, they win. And we will not, simply not, now or ever, let that happen.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and simulcast on MSNBC 3-5 p.m.

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