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Horror of the past week is certain to get worse

SHARE Horror of the past week is certain to get worse

WASHINGTON — It will get worse.

The horror of what we've seen on TV screens and read in our newspapers will reach new levels when we begin to see individual families dealing with the grim mechanics of death — the coffins, the words that cannot truly comfort, the ceremonies of official mourning for lost loved ones.

It will get worse when we discover by what few degrees we are separated from the direct victims of the catastrophe — when it turns out that virtually all of us know someone who knows someone who lost someone.

It will get worse when it begins to dawn on us how helpless we are to respond in any satisfying way to what happened on Tuesday. Reports now indicate 50 men were directly involved in the slaughter, some of whom died along with their victims. Suppose we got our hands on the rest, on Osama bin Laden himself and on 100 more besides. What could we conceivably do to them that bears any degree of proportionality to their offense against us? Our response to Pearl Harbor was proportional. Our response to this terrorism cannot be.

And yet we'll have to do something; we'll insist on it. We want blood, and we'll have it. Maybe we deserve our blood revenge. But we'll want to be satisfied that we spill the right blood, and that — no matter how certain our leaders seem to be that bin Laden is the terrorist in chief — can't be all that easy.

It will get worse when we find ourselves looking at individual Muslims and Arabs (including Muslim- and Arab-Americans) as fit targets for our vengeance. Even if we don't officially round them up, as we did with Japanese-Americans in World War II, the unofficial acts of meanness and hatred against those who look like our blood enemies are likely to redound to our shame.

And the prospects of that sort of bigotry will increase if the authorities don't do something pretty dramatic — perhaps a raid into Afghanistan to capture bin Laden? — and if it doesn't happen pretty quickly.

It will get worse when we discover that eliminating bin Laden doesn't eliminate the problem. Maybe he really is the evil and resourceful genius we've made him out to be. Maybe it takes a certain fiendish genius to be capable of seeing commercial jetliners as hideously effective bombs and of seeing such symbols as the World Trade Center and the Pentagon (was it supposed to have been the White House?) as particularly effective targets.

But how much genius will it take the next time, remembering that the next time needn't involve trained airline pilots but only zealots committed to dying in the effort to strike a heavy blow against their enemy — against us?

Which raises two questions: Why do so many in the Muslim world — not just the terrorists, but quite ordinary men and women — consider us their enemy? And is there anything at all reasonable for us to do about it?

I was not reassured by the answer suggested by William O. Beeman, a Middle East expert at Brown University, in a commentary he wrote a few days ago for the Pacific News Service.

Bin Laden, according to Beeman, is not so much an anti-American terrorist as a fierce defender of Islam determined to stop the United States from (in bin Laden's words) "occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places" — including Jerusalem.

"Bin Laden will not cease his opposition until the United States leaves the region," Beeman wrote.

If that desire to have American (and other Western) interests completely out of the region is the reason behind the anti-American sentiment — and if, as seems likely, that means curtailing America's support for Israel — then it's hard to see how it can be appeased.

But if that sentiment is widespread, and if, as we keep hearing, the structure of the active terrorist organizations, including bin Laden's, is highly "cellular," the threat to the United States could well survive bin Laden.

"Cellular" has both an organizational and, as Beeman uses it, medical reference. The terrorist cells already scattered throughout the world are evidence of an anti-Western cancer in metastasis. The usual wartime responses are likely to render the cancer yet more aggressively malignant.

It will get worse.

William Raspberry's e-mail address is willrasp@washpost.com.