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Dark day in American history

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Symbols are important to terrorists. They struck at many on Tuesday. The World Trade Center symbolized America's financial strength, its towering dominance in production, technical innovation and trade. The Pentagon symbolizes the nation's military strength and, by extension, the peace and security of its people.

Commercial airliners have come to symbolize the economic freedom and mobility of the American people. Nowhere else on earth are private citizens so free to roam, either for business or pleasure. Most people, it may be said safely, thought hijackings on U.S. soil were a thing of the past.

One by one, each symbol took direct hits that were meant to spread doubt and fear; to compromise the trust Americans have in institutions that help make the nation great.

But there were other symbols emerging Tuesday, as well.

These came in the pictures of ordinary people helping the wounded; of brave firefighters and medical technicians who ran into harm's way while ordering others to run away. They came in the stories of people who left the World Trade Center alive and unscathed but who stopped to help those less fortunate. Some lost their lives because they insisted on helping others. New York City has a reputation as a hard and callused place, but when suffering was at hand, compassion took over.

So long as Americans hold such virtues high, they will be all right. The coming days will be filled with grief, sorrow and anger. The Bush administration will do all in its power to identify the people responsible and will, we hope, bring them to justice.

But Americans cannot let the terrorists win.

They win if Americans lose confidence in their government and commerce. They win if Americans decide that the only way to be safe is to turn the nation into an air-tight police state, where mobility is restricted and precious freedoms are compromised. They win if Americans become consumed with hate; if they vent their frustrations on all people of Middle Eastern descent or on all foreigners. They win if anything but justice carries the day.

The entire nation was shaken by the awful events in New York City, Washington and aboard an aircraft that crashed in Pennsylvania. These constitute an attack on the United States every bit as real as the attack on Pearl Harbor, with civilian casualty lists that are likely to dwarf that awful day in 1941.

Americans cannot afford to let anger and fear cloud their minds. They cannot lose sight of the fact that, so long as they embrace goodness and freedom, they will remain strong and immovable.

We agree with columnist George Will, who writes on the page opposite this that these attacks are no reason for Americans to become fatalistic. Their real aim was to demoralize. But Americans must remember that terrorism is a weapon of the weak. It gives only the illusion that the perpetrators are strong.

From this black day in history must come strength and a resolve to seek justice. The war on terrorism, declared by President Clinton three years ago, has hit home. The nation, with a firm trust in the rights and principles that made it great, needs to turn its focus on winning it.