It was a crisp autumn Sunday, a day when churchgoers shook hands in parking lots, and men grabbed rakes to gather leaves before the football games started. A chill was in the air, and we pulled up our collars against the oncoming winter.

By sunset, our perspective had changed. As the news came that bombs had been dropped in Afghanistan, and missiles had been launched and threats were flying back and forth across the oceans, we realized that chilly shiver was more than just the change of seasons.

War had begun.

Before we say another word, before we strategize, analyze, predict or conclude, we should take a deep breath and say a prayer — to whomever or whatever you believe in — for the souls that are about to be lost. Young men and women on missions will lose their lives. Innocent people, who want no part of this, will lose their lives, too.

That is the truth of war, no matter what side you are on. The first thing we at home can do to separate ourselves from our enemy is to show remorse for any death, and a profound sadness that it has had to come to this.

Then, in the sobering light of morning, let us see what we have really gotten into here.

Because it is a deep, deep tunnel, with many miles to go.

Delivering darkness

“We have the will of the world behind us,” President George W. Bush said, in announcing Sunday’s attacks on Afghanistan positions, attacks that included bombers, strike aircraft and cruise missile attacks that reportedly wiped out strategic targets in numerous cities, including all the electricity in the capital of Kabul, leaving one Afghani to say, in a TV report, “the only light available is that of the moon.”

America felt justified in delivering such darkness. We felt right. Some even felt it was about time, given the horrific and shameless terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

But half a world away, in corners of the Islamic world, they were not listening to Bush. They were listening to a video released, skillfully, by terror king Osama bin Laden. It was clearly recorded before these attacks began, but timed to be shown the moment we struck.

It was, quite frankly, the third lob in this war of ideology, a counterattack to our counterattack.

The words were chilling.

“Today God has cursed the United States,” bin Laden said. ” . . . It is every Muslim’s role . . . to defend Islam. They have come to attack Allah’s religion. They have come to fight Islam, even though they tell the world that they are fighting terrorism . . .

“I want to say that these events have split the world into two halves, the faithful and the sinners . . .

“I swear by Allah . . . the United States will have no peace until every sinner, every Israeli, leaves the Palestinian lands.

“May God bless you.”

Game of selective destruction

In the children’s game of dominoes, the object is to knock the first one over and watch the rest come tumbling down. This morning, America tries a war in which the object is just the opposite, to knock over a chosen domino without tumbling the rest of the Islamic world with it.

It will not be easy. Bin Laden’s words prove that. Every Muslim killed in this war will be fodder for his cry of “us against them,” Allah versus the West, a showdown between Islam and anyone not willing to die for that religion.

And believe me, while bin Laden wants that, we do not. There are a billion followers of Islam in this world, and we don’t have a quarrel with most of them.

So we proceed carefully yet forcefully, and if those two words sound contradictory, well, now you know the strangeness of this war. We are firing on a country we have only recently bothered with. We are aligning with a rebel force that has murderous blood on its hands, one that says, “give us your money and tanks and we’ll take care of everything.”

We are chasing ants in an open field, and we may have to destroy much of the field to have a chance at finding them.

And meanwhile, here at home, we look over our shoulders, we jump at every loud noise, we keep our loved ones off airplanes and buses and out of crowded places. The war, so new, has already infested our heads, our words and our sleep.

And it is only starting. This will be months, perhaps years. Yet we cannot falter. We cannot back down. Terrorists only understand one language, and we are speaking it to them now. “The only light is that of the moon.” Doesn’t it feel like that now? We plunge ahead, wishing things were clearer, and praying that our sons and daughters are guided by their righteous spirit as they move into the dangerous darkness of our newest war.

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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