To the Editor:

Yesterday I watched in horror and disbelief the images of the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Like most Americans I asked myself how could it happen? I spent a good part of the day talking with students. Last night we held a candle light vigil in the Branford courtyard where many spoke movingly about the events of the day.

As I watched the television reports of the disaster well into the morning, I could not help but ask myself the most fundamental of all political questions: “What is to be done?” What would I do if the president were to call me and ask, “Professor Smith, the fate of the republic is at stake, what should I do?”

I do not have a clear answer to this question, although I felt compelled to write this in response to the some of the comments by Yale colleagues printed in the Yale Daily News (“A modern day Pearl Harbor: an endgame without an ending, 9/12).

One author intones that America has been “brought low” by the terrorist attack; another cautions, Hamlet-like, that “retaliation breeds retaliation,” while another worries that “we don’t have a bad guy,” and should not go off half-cocked, yet another piously hopes that American policy will not stoop to “deliberately” killing civilians, while still one more lectures that the suicide bombings must be seen in “context” by which he means a perhaps justified response to American support for Israeli democracy.

These comments all indicate a failure to see the attack on America as an act of clear and unmitigated evil. Tuesday’s events were nothing short of an assault on the very foundations of freedom and civilization. It will be the defining moment for this generation much as Pearl Harbor was for my parents’ or the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was for mine.

As of yesterday we have entered a very different world from the one we had previously known. What that world will look like, no one can say, but it has permanently shattered the optimistic illusions of international peacefulness and stability we hoped would be the result of the post-Cold War.

As professors we may be trained to see the world in terms of complexities, subtleties, nuances and paradoxes, to look at events in “context.” But I have yet to discover the context that justifies mass murder. We may not know yet precisely who perpetrated these acts, but America has not been “brought low” by terrorism.

And whatever our policy will eventually be toward those who carried out these hateful acts, I doubt very seriously it will ever entail the “deliberate” massacre of civilians. The failure to recognize and identify evil is not just an intellectual but a moral failure. There is at least one thing we should all be able to do, that is, to bring moral clarity to our situation.

Steven B. Smith

September 12, 2001

The writer is master of Branford College and an Alfred Cowles professor of political science.