"It was an act of war."
Over and over we have heard and read those words - from Congressional leaders, from editorial-page writers, from the man on the street, and finally from President Bush himself.
Comparisons were made to Pearl Harbor and "another day of infamy." The story has been played on television and in newspapers as "America under attack."
War, they said. We must retaliate, they said.
But every time I heard it, I had to ask: War against whom? Retaliate where?
The U.S. military went on alert, soldiers and jets and battleships at the ready. They were prepared to meet the enemy, and there was none. Fingers were on the triggers, but no one knew where to aim the sights.
The first finger pointed - with good reason - at Osama bin Laden, known terrorist and the usual suspect whenever terrorism rears its ugly head. As bits and pieces of information came to light, the evidence seemed to build that the Arab multimillionaire with hate in his heart for Americans around the globe could be the likely culprit.
My thoughts, however, turned quickly to April 19, 1995.
On that day, as we numbly watched the television pictures streaming out of Oklahoma City, the search for survivors, the ruined Murrah Federal Building, we also pondered "Who could do such a thing?"
On that day, too, the first name on many lips was Osama bin Laden, known terrorist and usual suspect.
Two days later, of course, we saw Timothy McVeigh - crew-cut ex-Marine from the American heartland - being led to jail in orange overalls with his hands cuffed behind his back.
Our anger turned to disbelief, to astonishment, to disgust and, even, embarrasment. If the bombing of the Murrah building were an act of war, then it had been done by a traitor among us. One of our own. One of our own gone horribly wrong.
Whoever turns out to be responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, I don't think we can consider them soldiers and I don't think we can consider ourselves at war.
They are terrorists. Like McVeigh, they targeted innocent people with no means to defend themselves - no inkling they might even need to defend themselves as they went about their business on Tuesday morning.
Terrorists are cowards. Terrorists need to be hunted down, caught and executed. But I can't say I will ever condone carpet-bombing the terrorists - along with their sisters, cousins and children.
In fact, if the mastermind behind Tuesday's murders is bin Laden, then all of Afghanistan can point to the 1998 missile attacks by the United States against his compound. Afghanis consider that attack to be state-sponsored terrorism against them, and they claim children were killed.
The missile attack was in retaliation for the bombing of U.S. military housing in Saudi Arabia, a terrorist mission attributed to bin Laden. He has been accused in connection with the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the bombing of embassies in Africa and the attack on the USS Cole that claimed 17 lives.
For bin Laden's followers, it is a "holy war" against the United States.
America's view, however, must be that these men are nothing more than international criminals. Terrorism is a crime against all nations, and one need only look at the list of offices in what was, indeed, a World Trade Center - China Chamber of Commerce, Royal Thai Embassy, Korea Local Authorities Foundation, Bank of Taiwan - to see that not just America was under attack. If Americans have felt too distant from Yemen or Saudi Arabia to be bothered - well, they know better now.
I have never been to war, yet I cling to a belief there is some honor in war. In America, we toss the term around loosely - the War on Poverty, the War on Drugs, even the World Wrestling Federation thinks it's at "war" - and now some would have us declare a War on Terrorism.
There is no honor in the way suicidal madmen on Tuesday snuffed out the lives of secretaries in high heels, stockbrokers in golf shirts, mail clerks in sneakers, even the men and women in uniform who were behind their desks at the Pentagon.
They weren't soldiers in a war, holy or unholy.
They were innocents. They were murdered. Our response will determine whether we are interested in justice or revenge.
-- Barry Smith is managing editor of the Nevada Appeal.