The horror of Tuesday morning holds three immediate lessons for the United States:
The first is acknowledged in the parallel many people draw with Pearl Harbor. In 1941, this country wanted to sit out the storm of World War II in official neutrality. The Japanese attack on Dec. 7 showed that it could not. "America First" isolationism vanished overnight. Washington led a mighty alliance to win the war.
In recent years, for different reasons, a sense of American exceptionalism revived. A certain triumphalism, stemming from economic and military strength, saw the United States as the only remaining superpower. The 800-pound gorilla, thumping its chest, impatient with cautious or befuddled friends, demanded respect. Little effort was made to seek consensus. Instead, the US went its own way in such existential matters as environment, energy, and defense, simply opting out of joint efforts when it chose.
Sept. 11 indicated how vulnerable this country is - and how much it needs friends. The cold arrogance of "like it or lump it" is not attractive. Who knows whether a world of nations that admired the United States and respected its aims might have forestalled the outrageous acts of violence committed against it in Yemen, Africa, and now in New York and Washington - or would now help in effecting retribution.
The second lesson: There is ample reason to think that the new terror offensive is an attempt by Islamic extremists to force a change of US policy toward Israel. The clockwork conspiracy was not the work of a few maniacs, but of an international network of assets linked by a common purpose: to punish the US for supporting Israel and to make Washington intervene against it. It is unthinkable, though, that this country would let its policy be hijacked. The radicals must not win, as Japanese militarists could not be given victory after Pearl Harbor.
Yet more is needed than strong words or retaliatory strikes to meet this emergency. The fact is that American efforts to establish peace in the Middle East have met an end. The current administration has signaled as much by pulling back and simply admonishing. Instead, it should try to give the peace process a much broader international base, bringing in Europe and other nations, including those of the region, who also have a stake in stability and peace.
Third, Israel's role in this tragedy must squarely be faced. Under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, himself an extremist of long standing, Israeli policy has gone berserk. It has degenerated into war against the Arabs of Palestine, waged in US-built F-16s and helicopter gunships. It is marked by serial assassination, a merciless blockade of the West Bank and Gaza, destruction of the Palestinian economy, and the reduction of millions to abject poverty.
Small wonder that suicide bombers seem practically to be standing in line to volunteer for "martyrdom." Israeli extremism is universally condemned, including in Washington.
The excuse that Israel is compelled to fight for its life breaks down under comparison with the picture of only 18 months ago, when hope was high and Sharon had not taken over the stage.
This is something the people of Israel must deal with. No solution can be imposed from outside. Their right to security cannot be questioned. But what brings security? Moderate opinion in Israel believes that real peace is not military dominance or seized territory, but having friendly neighbors. The world community must do everything it can to make this a reality. The United States, in helping to bring it about, would find its own security and pride as the first among equals.
Richard C. Hottelet was a longtime correspondent for CBS.