[Editor’s note: This column by former Journal reporter Dave Piszcz originally appeared in the Sept. 20, 2001 edition of TRJ. Reading it 10 years after those attacks, and five years after his own untimely death in August of 2006, we were struck by Dave’s thoughts on the events of 9/11. Though written in the immediate aftermath of those attacks, Dave’s column raises questions and issues that our society is still dealing with a decade later.]

Those who perpetrated and orchestrated the brutal attacks of Sept. 11 have achieved a symbolic and psychological victory. The World Trade buildings, which to many people represent powerful icons of American wealth, global economic power and domination, have fallen. The towers were just symbols. Those within, sadly, were real people.

The attackers have proved that, although the emperor isn’t naked, there are chinks in his armor. We have been hurt deeply.

These individuals, however, have not achieved a moral victory, because their actions are undeniably immoral crimes against all humanity. The only way they can triumph is if we, as a nation, hand them the prize by descending to the same level of indiscriminate savagery.

This nation has the military capability to reduce the cities of the planet to smoldering heaps of radioactive garbage. We are hurt, angry, stunned; looking for someone to blame, someone to hurt in return. It is a normal human reaction. For Americans, as a nation, to lash out blindly in pain and rage would achieve nothing but more terrorism. Such a war would be lost before it is begun: Beware your enemy lest you become him.

Likewise, acts of hatred perpetrated against other Americans because of their religion or ethnicity are as reprehensible as terrorism and have no place in a free society. There are more than 1 billion Muslims on planet earth, the majority of whom simply want to conduct their lives in peace, just like you or I. Shall we condemn them all in our wrath?

In the modern world, when individuals or nations want to make dramatic political statements, innocent people usually die. If we destroy thousands of ordinary Afghanis going about their daily lives just as the thousands of people at the World Trade Center were doing, we gain nothing and we lose our honor. Worse, we will have sown the dragon’s teeth, creating more rage and pain and a thirst for revenge for another generation. The dragons will continue to sprout and devour our future.

As Americans, we need to ask ourselves some painful questions. Our leaders constantly inform us that freedom, democracy and capitalism go hand in hand around the planet, but such is not always the case.

The United States has, over the decades, aligned itself with regimes which, although nominally capitalistic, had scant use for freedom and democracy. In order to achieve global strategic aims, we have climbed into bed with some unsavory “clients.” (Realpolitik was the word Henry Kissinger used to describe the process.) Often, the CIA and other covert agencies were on the ground in these countries, acting as agent provocateurs, training local secret police or fomenting unrest.

Consider that Osama bin Laden was thought to be a useful tool when he fought the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Saddam Hussein was a counterweight to the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, where we previously installed and supported the Shah and his harsh regime.

In the Middle East, we support autocratic kings and princes.

In Latin America, we supported generations of Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua.

The United States was complicit in the destruction of an elected government in Chile, replacing it with the brutal Pinochet military regime.

Salvadoran military officers, trained at the School of the Americas, murdered both their own and our citizens.

A succession of corrupt South Vietnamese generals-turned-politicians failed to either establish democracy or stop communism.

An American political leader once said of Gen. Chang Kai Shek, the nationalistic Chinese dictator and a supposed bulwark of freedom: “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”

As I write this, Israeli troops, using American-made helicopters and fighter jets, are conducting a kind of war on Palestinian civilians. If you shoot down my children and bulldoze my home, how can I ever forgive you? How can I hurt you in return? Where will it ever end?

To the people under the American bombs in Baghdad or Belgrade or Hanoi, who do we suppose was perceived as the immediate enemy? For better or worse, this is our history.

The perception of many on the receiving end of these actions is that they are being violated, not liberated, by America. That human perceptions can be manipulated by evil fanatics is well-documented in human history. Through our tears of sorrow and rage, we must take into account our own history and the perceptions of many people worldwide who daily live in conditions of poverty and oppression that we cannot easily comprehend… until this moment, perhaps.

The president has described the attacks of Sept. 11 as “acts of war,” against the United States. The implications of this statement are profound and sobering. Consider that Franklin Roosevelt was the last president to ask Congress to declare war. All military actions since 1941, whether described as “police actions,” “pre-emptive strikes,” “retaliations” or whatever other euphemisms politicians can devise, have taken place without a declaration of war by the Congress of the United States, the only entity constitutionally empowered to commit this nation to war.

Stampeded by falsified accounts of an attack on an American warship, Congress handed its war-making authority to the executive with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, leading the nation to disaster. The cities burned, the soldiers moved, the corpses stank and the bullets flew, but no “war” was officially taking place.

“War is hell,” William Tecumseh Sherman once astutely observed. If we are about to enter hell or to inflict it upon another nation, our elected representatives should take their full, public and constitutional responsibility for doing so. Let’s not fool ourselves again.

In war, innocent people will die and their blood will be on all our hands as a nation. In wartime, domestic civil liberties are restricted or eliminated. Military conscription is a facet of war. Our young people returning home in body bags is a price of war.

Americans should demand in no uncertain terms the constitutional process be upheld and that Congress not shirk its duty. The executive branch should not be handed carte blanche to conduct total war around the globe against a shadowy “them.” We, as citizens, have a right to know with whom we are at war and for what reasons, as we shall have to pay the price.

Only one Congressman has raised the troubling question of why the vast, clandestine security apparatus of the United States, including the newly created National Preparedness Office, apparently failed to have a clue the blow was about to fall. It is a valid question. We may not like the answer.

If there is any shard of hope to emerge from the madness and destruction of Sept. 11, it may have been captured in the actions of some Palestinians placing flowers on the grounds of the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv. Some of them carried signs that read, “Now you know how it feels,” or, “We are victims too.”

Today, we, as ordinary global citizens, have more in common with victims of terror and oppression around the world than we had on the early morning of Sept. 11. We, and they, suffer together and are bound together in our common humanity. Symbolically, we have all been hijacked, whether Muslim or Christian or Jew or Hindu or Buddhist or Pagan or Atheist — any of us could have been in those planes, anywhere on earth.

The United States on its own, short of leveling the planet with nuclear bombs, cannot eliminate international terrorist organizations from the world. It will require the cooperation of all nations to eliminate sophisticated groups who operate across borders, without regard for, or even with contempt for, human life; and who are unafraid, even eager to die for their cause. It will require changes to aspects of our foreign and economic policies. It will require admitting our faults as well as our strengths.

We can only hope that by their loathsome and spectacular cruelty, played out before the horrified eyes of the world on the brightly lit stage of America, these particular criminals have overplayed their bloody hand.

If, by their actions, they cause us truly, once and for all, to understand beyond any superficial differences in religion, or language, or skin color, or location on this earth, we are all alike in our basic humanity; that we want to live with a modicum of dignity and economic security and without fear, we want to feed our children and see them play and grow, we want to sit in the sun in our old age… If we can learn and act on this basic truth, then they have utterly defeated their own barbarous cause.