The new war began with pictures of smoke, mushrooming smoke, billowing clouds of smoke, smoke that rose above the busiest skyline in the busiest city in the busiest nation in the world, yellow smoke and white smoke and a deathly shade of gray smoke. Smoke filled with jet fuel, with the debris of airplanes, with the shattered glass of two of the tallest buildings in the world, with the charred flesh of victims, smoke filled with what used to be a uniquely American attitude, one that said, “We are safe here, we are the biggest, the richest, the proudest, so we are the most secure.”

That is gone now, blowing in the ashy winds above New York City and Washington and Somerset, Pa.

We are not safe.

And being big only makes us a fatter target.

The most dangerous terrorist, they say, is the one who doesn’t care if he dies. Sometime Tuesday morning, the skies over this country were populated with such people, people to whom life does not matter, theirs or yours. They somehow seized four commercial jetliners, hijacked them in mid-air, and flew them down America’s gut.

First our financial center. The World Trade towers. Then our political center, Washington, the Pentagon, symbol of our nation’s defense. A fourth plane crashed in western Pennsylvania. There is speculation it was headed for a more symbolic target.

“We’re being hijacked! We’re being hijacked!” a passenger reportedly screamed through his cell phone to an emergency dispatcher, just moments before United Flight 93 from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco hit the ground just southeast of Pittsburgh.

We’re being hijacked. Aren’t we all being hijacked here? Haven’t we now been taken to a world where terrorism lives, where you check every shadow, where you wonder about every tall building, where you suspect every bump on a plane or a train, where you think twice about traveling anywhere?

By midday Tuesday, everything from the Mall of America to Mt. Rushmore to Disney World had been shut down. Every airport in America, shut down. Every airport? It has never happened before. Borders were closed, from Canada to Mexico. Bridges closed. Anything with the world federal in its name was evacuated. Even in Detroit, from the General Motors headquarters to the Fisher Building, offices were cleared out. Emptied. Cloaked in fear.

It was as if someone unplugged America. Phone service. Computer service. There were military aircraft in the skies above New York City. Even the president, in trying to return to Washington, had Air Force One flanked by fighter jets.

Movement meant fear.

The outside meant danger.

The new war — in which you don’t know who your enemy is — was on.

Like a scene from a movie

This is not where America should go. But it is where we have been hijacked. And our memory will never be the same.

How can we ever forget watching, with stunned disbelief, as one tower of the World Trade Center burned, having been gored by a suicide flight? Then, incredibly, a second plane flew smack into the side of the other twin tower, like something out of “Independence Day,” emerging as a fireball, cutting a slice in the 110-story structure.

For more than an hour, the two buildings burned alive, holes in their midsections, blackening with the evil, until the walls and beams could no longer bear the weight.

Then they went down.

“There were bodies falling from the sky,” said one New York City policeman, who dragged a charred corpse from the rubble. “I don’t know if they were from the planes, or people jumping.”

Bodies from the sky? Yes. By the time they finish counting it will eclipse Pearl Harbor and Oklahoma City combined, many times over. Bodies from the sky. Bodies with faces and names and now everyone in this blessed country knows a victim of terrorism. It might not be your husband, but it will be the husband of someone you know. It might not be your coworker, but it will be your cousin’s coworker. It might not be one of your children on those four flights, or in the Pentagon, or in the World Trade Center, or on the streets in those places where debris came raining down, but it will be a friend’s child, or a friend’s grandchild.

America, in a sad way, has not been this united in a long time. It should not take a boom to do it.

But that is how terrorism, the new war, is played. It strikes from within.
“This is our Pearl Harbor,” pundits opined on the newscasts.

Perhaps. But the differences are striking. Pearl Harbor was a nation challenging us in an act of war. The Japanese pilots flew planes from Japan. They wore their nationality on their sleeve. They went after our military fleet. They killed our soldiers as well as civilians. The enemy at Pearl Harbor had a face, a flag and a purpose.

This time, the enemy had no immediate face. It flew no flag. And it attacked us where we live, not going after tanks or freighters but after as many people as possible.

The purpose? It wasn’t land. It wasn’t a ransom. It was sheer terror. To disrupt our lives. To make us fear everything. To make us think of the enemy whenever we enter work, whenever we go to the bank, whenever we enter a football stadium.

This is war in the 21st Century.

The horror is in the possibility of more horror.

The drive for revenge

“Freedom itself was attacked this morning by faceless cowards,” President George W. Bush said. “Make no mistake. The United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts.”

That must be done, and even those who hate violence may agree. For evidence suggests that terrorists of this size — and Saudi-exile Osama bin Laden is, at press time, a chief suspect here, one of the richest and most sophisticated terrorists in the world — do not respond to politicians decrying them at the United Nations. They do not respond to trials in some World Court. They speak a language of death, and in many cases, see murder of the enemy as a guarantee of a more glorious afterlife.

If so, then the tact Israel has been using for years — you attack us, we attack you back — will be the only U.S. alternative. But as angry as we are, as vengeful as we’ll feel in the days to come, we must be careful not to strike out wildly. These are dangerous dominoes we want to knock over. And terrorism, like weeds, is often plucked in one spot only to emerge in another. We must be especially careful not to lash out at our own American brothers and sisters, simply because they may be of a similar ethnicity or religion of the people we suspect did this horror.

We must respond with strength — but also intelligence. We must figure out what went wrong, but not waste time with wagging fingers. Mostly, we must mourn our dead, but then we must resume the American way of life — which, more than anything, is defined by freedom. That means freedom of movement, freedom of thought, and freedom from fear in our daily lives.

We have been lucky in America. We have lived pleasantly ignorant of the terror that threatens other nations every day. No more. That smoke was our innocence. That smoke was our peace of mind. It is disappearing now in the bloody skies above New York and Washington and Pennsylvania.

This is our new war, one that doesn’t follow any old rules, except the one that says in war people die, and no one is ever the same once they start.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com.

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