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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Stabilizing America

In Washington the nation's leaders are preparing for a war against an enemy that is as elusive as it is brutal. In downtown Manhattan, where the music of sorrow is as much a part of the air as the lingering smoke and ash from the vanished towers, workers continue their search through the ruins, collecting the dead and hoping for a miracle of survival.

And it is there, amid and around the ruins, in the grimy and often tear-streaked yet resolute faces of tirelessly working men and women, that the quintessential greatness of the United States is to be found.

Thousands rallied in response to the tragedy, including the firefighters who were among the first to arrive and who perished by the hundreds. And in that immediate, courageous, cooperative and compassionate response is embodied the very meaning of a great and free nation. On its best days, that is the face America turns to the mirror.

But in the rage that inevitably follows a murderous attack, there is a need to be wary of other, less noble responses. Americans are understandably eager for revenge. But a blind rage that snuffs out the lives of innocents with even more efficiency than the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon would only shame this nation and would not make it any more secure.

The president has made it clear that the United States will wage a sustained war against terrorists and those who harbor them. But there is a difference between spectacular bombing campaigns that generate applause from Americans watching on television and the creative, complex, intensely cooperative and unconventional types of warfare that might be effective against terrorists who sneak from nation to nation like rats spreading a deadly plague.

The terrorists themselves, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged, "don't have things to blow up."

As we consider the overwhelming force that could soon be launched, we need to keep in mind who the enemy really is.

The same goes for the individuals far from the corridors of government power who have been lashing out at people who are -- or appear to be -- of Middle Eastern descent.

In Mesa, Arizona, in what appeared to be an attempt at revenge for the Trade Center attack, an unidentified assailant shot and killed a man who moved to the United States from India 10 years ago.

Other reports of physical and verbal harassment of people believed to be Middle Eastern are coming in from all parts of the country, including reports of firebombings and the cruel harassment of schoolchildren.

The bad behavior is coming from those who have suffered least. The greatest concentration of suffering during this past hideous week has been in lower Manhattan and its surroundings. You cannot stand near that scene for any length of time without experiencing the silent scream of all those who died and all those who loved them. And yet that is where we have exhibited the very best of ourselves.

Terrorism can be fought globally and locally in ways that do not diminish us as a nation, that do not make us afraid to look into the mirror, that do not lower us to the level of the murderous zealots who reduced so much of lower Manhattan to ruins. Everything we need to know about how to behave in this crisis can be learned by watching the people who are at the epicenter of the horror.

The terrorists may have altered the New York City skyline, but they should not be allowed to alter the spirit and character of the American people.

Plutarch said, "Good fortune will elevate even petty minds, and give them the appearance of a certain greatness and stateliness, as from their high place they look down upon the world; but the truly noble and resolved spirit raises itself, and becomes more conspicuous in times of disaster and ill fortune."

Bob Herbert is an editorial writer for The New York Times, to which he contributed this comment.