The 21st century began last Tuesday, with the sickening impact of jetliners against steel, concrete, and glass. The century arrived nine months and 10 days late, but then politics doesn't always observe the calendar.
This is not the first century to begin with a terrorist attack. The last century commenced, as it were, with the destruction on February 15, 1898, of the U.S. battleship Maine, moored in Havana harbor. More than two hundred Americans died in the blast. What we would now call state-sponsored terrorism was immediately suspected as the cause, and in less than three months the United States and the Empire of Spain were at war. Less than three months after that, the fighting was over and America had become a world power, disposing not only of Cuba but of the far-flung Hawaiian and Philippine islands.
Terrorism soon gave a bloodier hue to events, of course. The 20th century's peculiar barbarism began in 1914 when a terrorist assassinated the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The sanguinary thread pulled by that assassin unraveled the states and nearly the civilization of Europe, unleashing routine mass slaughter and setting in motion the two tyrannical world-systems, Soviet Communism and Nazism, whose rise and fall would dominate the rest of the century's politics.
So we cannot yet discern the ultimate consequences of last week's attacks on New York and Washington. Whether the carnage piled up by the terrorists and by our attempts to stamp them out will exceed the appalling toll accumulated in the last century, we cannot tell. It is a grim supposition, however, that our enemies like to top themselves, and that among the terrible surprises they withhold, temporarily, are weapons biological, chemical, and nuclear. The coming century may be monstrous, indeed.
Most of us feel this new vulnerability. The country has not suffered such a calamitous sneak attack since Pearl Harbor. So many Americans have not died in combat on American soil since Antietam. During the Cold War we lived with the threat of nuclear attack, but the threat remained unconsummated and we had the perverse satisfaction of believing that, if worse came to worse, we'd be avenged almost instantly. But it is not justice or even vengeance for the hijackers to have willingly blown themselves up along with their victims.
Our enemies seem to have left us with a stark but simple choice: to kill them before they kill us. Although there is no denying the good sense in this advice, in the end it neglects too much the differences between us and them. "Why We Fight" is a question that a free people are compelled to answer not merely by invoking the imperatives of self-preservation but also by reminding themselves of their blessings and, correspondingly, their duties.
Chief among our blessings is the United States Constitution. Monday was Constitution Day, marking the 214th anniversary of the Constitution's signing and its transmission from the Philadelphia Convention to the U.S. Congress, whither it was sent to special ratifying conventions in each state.
As American anniversaries go, Constitution Day is a small one, not even an excuse for a long weekend. But after the savage attacks of last week, the Constitution suddenly seems more precious, its virtues heightened and brought closer to home. It is the nature of evil to be a sort of privation, a negation of what is good; and in reflecting on the Constitution's goodness we celebrate all those principles that our enemies hold in contempt.
Human dignity; the rule of law; the equal rights of men and women; limited government; separation of powers; the consent of the governed; due process of law; separation of church and state; freedom of speech and religion — these are the glories of our constitutional order. To the tyrants who struck New York and Washington, however, these are a syllabus of errors.
The World Trade Towers and the Pentagon are symbols of America's commercial civilization and its military might — the things that together used to be called "the arsenal of democracy." But they are not symbols of democracy per se.
One of the hijacked planes was apparently aimed for the White House. As symbols, the White House and the Capitol Building come close to the heart of American republicanism. Their destruction would have been a grievous, grievous blow — but one from which the country would have recovered. After all, the British Army torched both buildings during the War of 1812 and America bounced back smartly.
Though aiming squarely for American democracy, the terrorists missed their target last week. You can shatter and implode a building, but you can't so easily destroy a Constitution.
Already we see the remarkable way in which the Constitution's spirit, far in advance of any legal proceedings, encourages Americans to restrain themselves and to rally around the rule of law — hence, for example, the ubiquitous and welcome calls to respect the rights of law-abiding Muslim citizens and resident aliens. It's also a good sign that Americans are questioning the bureaucracy and loss of personal freedom threatened by some of the new security measures. A liberty-loving people should be spirited.
But the acid test of our Constitution's health will be the energy with which Americans are able to defend themselves and to subdue our enemies. In the 21st century as before, the Constitution gives us the tools. Will we be able to finish the job?