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We had been warned that much of the world despised America. We tuned out -- until killers delivered to America its most tormented day since Pearl Harbor.

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America, America! God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in
self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

-- Katherine Lee Bates, "America the Beautiful," 1913

Driving into Atlanta on I-85 last Friday, I watched a tiny morality play unfold. A guy in a hulking green Explorer -- big American flag taped to the rear window -- ran up behind a silver Volvo. The SUV driver got right on the Volvo's bumper, backed off and then macho-menacingly sped up to the bumper again.

His bully-boy tactics unsuccessful, the Explorer's driver whipped around the Volvo, flipping the bird and shouting obscenities as his flag-bedecked car disappeared into the traffic.

This wasn't a bad metaphor for the America of the last century. We get our way, or we angrily kick butt. And, it's worked. We're rich, we're fat, we're usually happy. That we see Uncle Sam as a benevolent big daddy to the world, and many of Earth's citizens see only our foot on their neck has been, from within our safe continental ramparts, merely a perceptional problem.

Until Sept. 11.

Ruthless, godless -- but don't call them mindless -- killers delivered to America its most tormented day since Pearl Harbor.

Cassandras had been warning us that much of the world despised America. We tuned out, preferring to be mesmerized by "Survivor or to be titillated by Gary Condit and Chandra Levy. Nothing new there. While our leaders pounded global politics into a wholly unjust new world order, we put on blinders and watched O.J., Bill and Monica, and JonBenet Ramsey.

Now all channels have the same images, horror and tragedy beyond anything Hollywood, Tom Clancy or sensation-soaked "news shows could deliver.

There is no plausible justification for what the terrorists wrought. It was simply pure evil whose only goal was to create chaos -- much as if the Volvo driver had decided to stomp on his brakes, indifferent to whether he killed himself and a dozen other motorists as long as he wrecked the Explorer.

That is how much of the world feels about the United States.

We know deeply in our souls that we didn't deserve Sept. 11, 2001. We know that God, aka Allah, reserves the hottest cells, the cruelest barbs for those who kill the blameless. We know we've been blindsided and wounded, but we know our reserves of strength are barely touched.

Our outpouring of charity to the victims has been overwhelming. Our churches, mosques, synagogues and temples have been packed. A thousand media tongues have chorused that the sleeping giant is awakened.

All that's left is the "what and the "how. If cowboy politicians, their bravado a calculation of potential votes, lead us into a spiral of violence, the terrorists who flew the four planes will indeed become the Apocalyptic Horsemen.

But if we rigorously examine what we have become, how far we've strayed from our founders' ideals, and if our retaliation is one, as Katherine Lee Bates penned in her anthem, of self-control and law, we will righteously triumph.

First, we must learn. It's not hard to examine history books, and find the stories that in our consumer and media stupor we've ignored. The countries we've left in ruins. The regimes, many democratic, that we've overthrown. The millions of bodies.

Whatever the spin, in most cases our lethal adventures also were assaults on the virtues we preach as a nation. We have been far more successful at making the world safe for our pet dictators than for democracy.

There's Chile, Vietnam, Nicaragua. El Salvador. East Timor. Guatemala. Panama. On and on.

Under Bill Clinton, we waged in Kosovo what has come to be called the "Coward's War. As a much more honorable ex-president, Jimmy Carter, described last week to Emory University students: With "complete impunity, we dropped bombs from 30,000 feet and then went back to our bases. A small nation was devastated, the "collateral damage (dead civilian bodies) was horrific. Not an excuse for terrorism, Carter sternly admonished, but an explanation for animosity.

Clinton, with no credible proof or justification (other than to deflect attention from his dallying with Monica) also bombed a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory. Low estimates from the resulting deaths -- slow, agonizing deaths from diseases -- are in the thousands, maybe tens of thousands.

Israel/Palestine? What many in the world, especially Arabs and Muslims, see is America propping up a 34-year-old military occupation of conquered lands in violation of international laws and United Nations' resolutions. With less money and fewer weapons, Israel long ago might have been forced to begin the process of crafting a real peace.

No dispute: The Palestinian suicide bombings are despair-driven perversions of Islam -- the terrorism is never justified. Yet our government and most American media focus on the sins on one side of the barricades, and never the wrongdoing by the other side. We are hardly "honest brokers, and the world knows it.

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