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Eastern Middle School, by Thomas L Friedman

I recently attended meet-the-teacher night at Eastern Middle School, my daughter Natalie's school in Silver Spring, Md. The evening began with the principal noting that Eastern, a public school in suburban Washington, had 40 different nationalities among its students. Before the teachers were introduced, the school's choir and orchestra, a Noah's ark of black, Hispanic, Asian and white kids, led everyone in "God Bless America." There was something about the way those kids sang together, and the earnest, if not always melodious, way the school orchestra pounded out the National Anthem, that was both moving and soothing. As I took in the scene, it occurred to me how much the Islamic terrorists who just hit America do not understand about America.

Their constant refrain is that America is a country with wealth and power but "no values." The Islamic terrorists think our wealth and power is unrelated to anything in the soul of this country -- that we are basically a godless nation, indeed the enemies of God. And if you are an enemy of God you deserve to die. These terrorists believe that wealth and power can be achieved only by giving up your values, because they look at places such as Saudi Arabia and see that many of the wealthy and powerful there lead lives disconnected from their faith.

Of course, what this view of America completely misses is that American power and wealth flow directly from a deep spiritual source -- a spirit of respect for the individual, a spirit of tolerance for differences of faith or politics, a respect for freedom of thought as the necessary foundation for all creativity and a spirit of unity that encompasses all kinds of differences. Only a society with a deep spiritual energy, that welcomes immigrants and worships freedom, could constantly renew itself and its sources of power and wealth.

Which is why the terrorists can hijack Boeing planes, but in the spiritless, monolithic societies they want to build, they could never produce them. The terrorists can exploit the U.S.- made Internet, but in their suffocated world of one God, one truth, one way, one leader, they could never invent it.

Lord knows, ours is hardly a perfect country. Many times we have deviated from the American spirit or applied it selfishly. But it is because we come back to this spirit more times than not, in more communities than not, that our country remains both strong and renewable.

Why can't we convey that? In part, we're to blame. President Bush denigrated Washington during his campaign and repeated the selfish mantra about the surplus that "it's your money -- not the government's money." How thankful we are today that we have a Washington, D.C., with its strong institutions -- FEMA, the F.A.A., the F.B.I. and armed forces -- not to mention a surplus to help manage our way out of this crisis.

In part we don't talk about these issues so we don't embarrass our autocratic allies in the Middle East. But this negative view of America as a nation that achieved wealth and power without any spiritual values is also deliberately nurtured by governments and groups in the Middle East. It is a way of explaining away their own failures to deliver a better life for their own people: The Americans are powerful only because they stole from us or from others -- not because of anything intrinsically spiritual or humane in their society.

A society that will dig until it has found every body in the World Trade Center rubble -- because at some level it believes every individual is created in the image of God -- a society that raises $600 million for the victims in two weeks, is a godless, spiritless place? Guess again.

These terrorists so misread America. They think our strength lies only in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon -- the twin pillars of our wealth and power -- and if they can just knock them down we'll start to fold: as if we, like them, have only one truth, one power center.

Actually, our strength lies in the slightly dilapidated gym of Eastern Middle School on parent-teacher night, and in thousands of such schools across the land. That is where you'll find the spirit that built the twin towers and can build them over again anytime we please.

So in these troubled times, if you want to feel reassured about how strong this country is, or what we're fighting to preserve, just attend a P.T.A. meeting. It's all there, hiding in plain sight.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times CompanyPrivacy Information

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