Americans enter a test of will with new clarity

"INEVER was much for putting out a flag," I heard a woman say in the weekend sunshine, "until now." She went into the basement of her home and fetched two small ones - starchy cloth flags on sticks - and stuck them in the potted plants in front of her house.

This has happened all across the nation by now: Americans who love their country, but who limit patriotic displays to singing the national anthem before ball games, are among those dishing out dollars for flags or pulling them from storage.

They're probably feeling something they've never felt before. It might be unmitigated anger. It might be unfettered patriotism. But it might just be a strangely serene, utterly unambiguous belief in the next big American challenge.

The country has been attacked and the country has to respond. The enemy is not an entire nation, nor is it an alliance of nations, easy to color on a map. The enemy is evil cloaked a thousand different ways in a thousand different places, presenting a complex challenge for the world's superpower.

It will be incredibly difficult - hugely difficult - to find and eliminate terrorists, and do so without killing innocents. But this time there's no ambi- guity about whether the nation should be engaged.

Remember all those arguments around the kitchen table between generations? Those who lived through World War II and who remembered Pearl Harbor claimed a clear view of the American mission in Vietnam. But it wasn't so easy for those of us who grew along the national fault lines created by that war and who had no personal memory of Pearl Harbor. The view was much more garbled, the feelings mixed, with cynicism setting in like a fog and lasting well into the Persian Gulf war.

We envied an earlier generation for its strength and courage, but also for the clarity with which it viewed America in the world.

Here we are, at last, feeling what they must have felt after Pearl Harbor. Here we are, at last, knowing clarity about what this nation must do, and why it must do it.

It's how we do it that will test our leaders and our resolve.

A first responder's wisdom

Among the missing in the rubble of the World Trade Center towers is a man known among New York City firefighters as "God," Raymond Downey, chief of special operations and a nationally recognized expert in rescue.

Downey - who was on the scene in the World Trade Center immediately after the terrorist bombing in 1993 - had been a booming voice for the modernization of rescue and recovery units by local departments, the "first responders" across the country.

Three years ago, he appeared before a congressional committee and warned of the nation's lack of preparedness for weapons of mass destruction. He dared to imagine the unspeakable, a threat many Americans might have dismissed until Tuesday: Not jumbo jets turned into human-guided missiles, but chemicals weapons.

What would have happened, Downey asked the committee, had the 50,000 occupants of the World Trade Center complex been exposed to deadly chemicals?

"Not a fire department in the United States could have handled an incident involving a chemical agent affecting this many victims," he said. "Why? Lack of sufficient funding and training for weapons of mass destruction. ...

"What would happen if it occurred today? Would we be prepared? Some fire departments have increased their capabilities, but the majority of the country is still not prepared for these type of incidents."

Downey asked Congress to involve "first responders" with federal agencies that have been preparing for terrorism.

He said, "The federal government needs to provide assistance and funding for training, detection equipment, personal protective equipment and mass decontamination capabilities. It is the first responder that will be facing the challenges that weapons of mass destruction present. They are the ones that need the funding and assistance the federal government can provide."

Downey, of course, was the chief of first responders, and that's why he's missing.

One of our own

American flags now hang from many a pole, fence and front porch across the country. The one on the lamp post on Wooded Run Drive, on the west side of Columbia, went up in honor of Darin Pontell.

Pontell, 26, a Navy lieutenant junior grade and Naval Academy graduate - married last March and a "computer whiz," according to his proud grandfather - is listed among the missing at the Pentagon. His father, Gary Pontell, lives on Wooded Run.

Three important words

Overheard Tuesday morning, in the three hours after the attacks on the World Trade Center: Eleven people on cell phones saying, "I love you," to those on the other end. We heard it in corridors, in an elevator, on sidewalks outside office buildings.

It served, in the madness of the moment, to remind us to always say it now, on the most peaceful days.

And maybe, if there's someone in your realm who's drifted away - whether because of time, miles or hard feelings - it would be a good idea to get in touch, or make peace. Better now than never.

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