Washington is a quiet place these days. I am not referring to "political" Washington, of course. Congress and the various federal agencies are abuzz with all sorts of activity. I am talking about the people. The streets seem emptier, the lunchtime chatter hushed, the atmosphere subdued and cautious. It is somber.
When terrorism struck, it hit this city hard. The loss of life - on the plane and at the Pentagon - was shattering. As Americans, we grieve with our fellow citizens over the deaths of all the victims.
But, even at the Pentagon, the tragedy hit closer to home. Rabbi Menachem Youlus, a chaplain who participated in the recovery, estimates that as many as 20 victims, out of an approximately 190 (11%), were Jewish. Two, in fact, were customers of his local Jewish bookstore. It was chilling to hear that one of the Jewish dead was identified by the mogen dovid discovered around his neck.
But what stunned Washington went beyond the loss of life. To successfully crash a jet in the heart of our national capital - at the Pentagon, no less - jarred Washington's collective psyche. And one could only shudder at what additional havoc would have been wrought had the fourth plane found its intended target.
It is not that Washingtonians have never considered the possibility. Indeed, we have always known that something catastrophic could - and someday probably would - happen in this city. In some ways, it is a mindset unique to the people that live and work here. The nation's capital is always a primary target.
Growing up in Washington during the Cold War years, my earliest memories include the omnipresent "fallout shelter" signs and the evacuation drills to get to those shelters. Over the years, as the threat turned from war to terrorism, there have been numerous scares. Jews got a special taste of the terrorist menace in the 1977 when Hanafi Muslims took over the B'nai B'rith building and held hostages for several days. There was always the fear, but we put it aside - we had to - and lived our lives.
It is now back - that sense of vulnerability - and it is magnified a hundred-fold when we consider the threat. The "new" terrorism, as has been so often repeated lately, lurks in the shadows. Its weapons and methods of attack are not conventional, and when evil has no bounds security is illusory. This is a city that was designed by L'Enfant to withstand the cavalry attacks of the 19th century, not the suicide bombings, hijackings or biochemical warfare of the year 2001.
But, despite this cloud of vulnerability, Washington is at work. Both the White House and Congress are trying to fight back with a double-edged sword - fighting terrorism abroad while enhancing security at home.
Some have suggested that the Jewish community mute its response to developments related to the ongoing war against terror. A backlash is feared. But the Jewish community has an important role to play on both of these fronts, and it should do so without hesitation.
Jews - in Israel and around the world - have been targets of terror for decades. We have followed it, studied it and painfully felt its evil. We have long understood its insidious designs and have seen through its political camouflage. We have, to be sure, long suffered the international community's naiveté, hypocrisy, ignorance, apathy, and worse, in battling this scourge.
Surely, there are sensitivities involved here of the utmost importance. The United States has undertaken an unprecedented step in meaningfully combating terrorism, and its coalitional efforts - by all accounts, a key element of the strategy -- should not be jeopardized or undermined.
But Jews are not disinterested parties. We have a life and death stake in the conduct and outcome of this battle. Osama bin Laden wasted no time in proclaiming that Jews, wherever they may be found, will suffer the consequences of his hysterical hatred. We cannot sit by idly. We must find our voice.
We must reject the canard that somehow Israel is to blame for hatred and terrorism directed against the U.S. We must make clear that American pressure to force talks or to accept the reality of a Palestinian state will prove counterproductive and represents a capitulation to terrorists.
We must express our outrage at the notion that violence against Israel and Jews is something separate and distinct from terrorism against "innocents." We must make sure that Palestinian terrorist groups - and the fronts that support them - will be included among the targets of the war on terrorism.
We must express our concern about including state supporters of terrorism in the coalition and pushing the effort to make Syria a member of the U.N. Security Council.
We must say all this, not because it simply serves our parochial interests. We should say it because it is integral to the fight against terrorism and to the United States' stated objectives in this campaign.
The American Jewish community cannot remain silent. We must speak to the President and our political leaders clearly and unequivocally, firmly and in candor. Carefully, too. Quietly, if possible. With discretion and prudence. But we cannot afford to remain silent at this critical juncture in our people's history.
If we do, the price may be very high, G-d forbid.