A number of wise voices have cautioned that the terror attack unleashed on America must not become an excuse for suspending basic American principles and values.
That warning has immediate application to the treatment of the country's millions of citizens of Arab background and Muslim faith. In numerous parts of the US, hatred and prejudice have reared their heads in the days since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Threatening phone calls, shouted taunts, and acts of vandalism have been reported.
From Arizona and Texas, come reports of a gas station owner (a Sikh, neither Arab nor Muslim) and a store owner (a Pakistani) shot and killed.
These are profoundly un-American actions. The hard lessons of the past, such as the regrettable internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, can't be forgotten. The American system will not again tolerate retaliation against a whole segment of the population.
But misguided individuals or mobs, responding to events with a rage that has more in common with the terrorists' motives than with American values of justice and fairness, may try to cross that line. They act from ignorance, targeting anyone who wears a turban or a head scarf - or throwing bricks or shooting at Islamic places of worship, whose members are just as intent on praying for peace as congregations in churches or synagogues. A Muslim cleric was among the many religious leaders who spoke movingly at last Friday's national prayer service in Washington.
Mayors, governors, and local police officials must make it clear that ethnically or religiously motivated attacks will be punished. President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft have decried such attacks. Those words, from the highest offices in the land, will need to be forcefully reiterated in coming days.
Special care should be taken to ensure that ethnic profiling of people of Arab or South Asian background is used judiciously and sparingly by law-enforcement officials. The hunt for suspected terrorists or terrorist sympathizers can't justify a descent into unjust police methods.
Wars sometimes occasion a lapse in democratic processes, and the situation following the Sept. 11 attacks is being characterized as "war." This must not mean a lapse in basic civil liberties, or in the civility with which all people are treated in the US.