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Peace on earth, good will toward men. These words are easy enough to say, but in the days we live, elusive of our immediate grasp. The events of the last months have been difficult, and difficult to discern. Over and over, there was a subtext to our national conversation: How could God let so many innocents die? And what does this barbaric attack portend? Can the edifice of the rule of law and American civil liberty withstand the constant, insidious assault of worldwide terrorism? And do our collective faiths really ask that we turn the other cheek? All demanding, formidable questions. Yet we are not discouraged by these imponderables. With unprecedented levels of support for President George W. Bush, thousands are rediscovering the nobility of public service — of working for the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the Central Intelligence Agency. Many more are serving and joining the ranks of active military. Anthrax spores may slow the mail and close some buildings, but they cannot close the American mind and spirit. In responding to terrorism, we have forfeited none of our American identity. We are a nation of free expression. Even when it comes to the best way to confront terror, there are strong opinions. From these vigorous yet civil disputes, balance often emerges. Attorney General John Ashcroft asked for and received from Congress expanded powers of surveillance over the Internet and wireless communications, and the authority to have the law enforcement and intelligence communities share information. I fully expect he will use this augmented power wisely. But it is the American way — even in the midst of crisis — for Congress to make sure by the judicious inclusion of sunset language in the legislation. As evidence of the attorney general’s trustworthiness, it is significant that he charged Zacarias Moussaoui, a relative small fry suspected of being involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, in federal court rather than in a military tribunal. When Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda leadership are captured, however, the president’s military order will be at the ready to provide a full and fair trial before disciplined military commanders. A violation of civil liberty and human rights? Hardly. Since Sept. 11, we have learned something about the terrorists, and also about ourselves. We now know they spurn the distinctly American yet aspirationally universal sentiment that all persons are created equal. In abandoning this bedrock of fundamental human rights, it became clear what they are: hostis humani generis — the enemies of all mankind. And us? We are, before and after that fateful date, Americans. We are a nation with an unabashed public philosophy that allows each of us, from the most fortunate to the least advantaged, to know the difference between right and wrong — or in President Bush’s terms, good and evil. To be sure, that capacity for discernment was eroding before Sept. 11. It had gotten lost in economically inexplicable dot-com fortunes and years of complacently assumed security. Books like Tom Brokaw’s “The Greatest Generation,” which rightly praised the valor of the men and women of World War II, subtly gnawed at our public consciousness — that the present generation was untested. Worse, it was perceived to be self-indulgent and undirected. Well, of course, we were. Americans are not two-dimensional superheroes immune from human failing. But give us a just cause, and we will see it to conclusion with determination. It matters not that the enemy on this occasion is not a conventional nation-state or a shopworn communist ideology. No shadowy league of marauders can match our grandiloquent yet inalienable embrace of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. So, to return to one of the questions I posed at the beginning of this piece, can our edifice of law and civil liberties persevere? I am confident that it will. And I am equally confident that it will do so in a way that transcends the left-right debates and cost-benefit calculations of our recent past. A wise scholar a half-century ago wrote that in the face of massive world disorder, Americans confront a single question, “What kind of order in the world do you want?” Debates over the size of the economic stimulus or whether federalism is an important value to preserve may seem like squabbles now. But in reality, they remind us that “an order of peace, freedom, justice and prosperity” does not come about by accident. That order — and these blessings — comes from the work of men and women willing to say, “There are truths and we hold them.” Both before and after September’s tragedy, such conviction is American-made. Douglas W. Kmiec is the dean and St. Thomas More professor of law at the Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law in Washington, D.C.

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