September 16, 2001: Enemies made us remember our heritage

09/16/2001 2:41 PM

09/19/2014 2:22 AM

This will not be a video-game war.

We need to pause here a moment and make sure we all understand. It won't be a war where combat is limited to remote-control weapons and distant targets. It won't be a war where battle footage consists solely of some grainy image of a target growing larger in the cross hairs, then disappearing in a silent flash.

You've heard what the grim-faced men on television keep saying. Ground troops. Infantry. That means American soldiers in harm's way.

This will not be a war where all the dying is done on the other side.

I'm not suggesting it's a war we shouldn't fight. Not at all.

I saw those planes plow into the side of the World Trade Center towers just like you did. And just like you, I find myself adrift in a world that seems suddenly unfamiliar, abruptly unsafe. I feel violated. And I feel, too, that the time has come when civilized people have to make a stand, when good must take the fight to evil.

Yet even as I say that, I'm struck by how very easy it is for me to say. I am, after all, just a guy sitting at a desk. I won't be taking the fight to anybody. Others will be doing it on my behalf. Unless you're a member of the nation's armed forces - and God bless you if you are - the same is true of you.

We've made it clear that we're willing to bear any cost to extract retribution from those who have hurt us so grievously. But make no mistake: The cost of that will not measured primarily in terms of money - or even sacrifice.

Human life is the currency of war. We need to be sure we understand that. We need to gird ourselves for it.


Some farm boy from Kansas, some dimpled mother from Arizona, some dutiful son from Maine, is going to return home stuffed inside a zippered bag. We are about to see what we have not seen for a generation. We are about to understand the revulsion of our forebears.

As William Tecumseh Sherman once famously said: ``It is only those who have never fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.''

We haven't been to hell lately. And we have changed dramatically in the years since our last visit, become a people defined in part by a quixotic belief in the perfectibility of the human condition. We litigate when our feelings are hurt or the world unfair, impose zero tolerance laws to tidy up the loose ends and errant inconsistencies of daily life. Self-improvement is our mantra. We work to become our best selves, to find spiritual enlightenment, to nurture the inner child.

We seek order. We hate mess. And war is nothing but.

Especially this war. It won't be like World War II, where men died with grotesque abandon, their blood staining the sand of distant beaches. But neither is it likely to be like Desert Storm, a hundred hours of combat and 760 casualties.

That's not to denigrate the sacrifices made by those who fought in the Persian Gulf. The point is only that this will be something different, something profoundly new. This, the president tells us, will be ``sweeping'' and ``sustained.''

``You will be asked for your patience,'' he said, ``for the conflict will not be short.''


We fight against a stateless enemy whose rules are not like ours, an enemy for whom suicide is glory and the mass murder of innocent noncombatants a legitimate tactic.

We must understand this and muster the resolve the task demands. And we will. After all, what other choice do we have? What other option does our ancestry allow?

Colin Powell said it Wednesday: ``We're Americans; we don't walk around terrified.''

Our enemies don't expect us to understand that this conflict won't be just another video game, don't expect us to have the stomach for the sort of up-close and personal war that looms. They sought to cow us with a single murderous strike.

Instead, they did the opposite. They yanked us out of idyll and reverie, forced us to confront the demands of our common heritage. God help them.

They made us remember who we are.

About Leonard Pitts Jr

Leonard Pitts Jr


Leonard Pitts Jr. won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2004. He is the author of the novel, Before I Forget. His column runs every Sunday and Wednesday. Forward From This Moment, a collection of his columns, was released in 2009.

On Sept. 11, 2001, he wrote a column on the terrorist attacks that received a huge response from readers who deluged him with more than 26,000 e-mails. It was posted on the Internet, chain-letter style. Read the column and others on the topic of September 11.

You can also read Pitts' series, What Works?, a series of columns about programs anywhere in the country that show results in improving the lives of black children.

Leonard also wrote the 2008 series I Am A Man, commemorating the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination.

Email Leonard at or visit his website at

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