American Thinkers Respond to Terror (Part III)

ABCNEWS asked several of the nation's most interesting people to reflect on their feelings at this historic juncture and we've published extended excerpts of their comments here. Read and compare what they have to say, then share your own thoughts on our message board.

Ruth Simmons, President of Brown University

… For a period of time we haven't paid enough attention to the complex relations that exist around the world and our place in that. We are a leadership power in the world, which gives us a special responsibility … We have an obligation. We're one of the most educated countries in the world. That gives us an obligation to learn more about our neighbors and about what it is that they have encountered, and how they live and what their perspective is on world affairs. And we have been inward looking in the sense that we haven't done that enough. Aside from a few specialists and foreign policy analysts and students of international relations, the American people in general don't read enough about the world that they live in.

And now suddenly here we are. The world is coming to us. We always thought that we would be safe within our borders and that we would be taking the war to other nations. Well it's here now. And as a consequence, it seems to me, we need to take seriously our responsibility as world citizens… So I think we will change, and I think that will be good … We're evolving, I hope, to making use of the knowledge and ability that we have to play a much more forthright and responsible role in world affairs.

This is an opportunity for us to look deeply and to assess what we do around the world with regard to poverty, with regard to civil rights, with regard to human rights, and to try to get a grasp of that that's more sophisticated than what we're accustomed to doing by waving flags and writing out banners and so on. There is this very serious issue that we're confronting in the world, and that is how will we — all of us together — live in an environment of trust, respect, peace, dignity and honor. That's a powerful question for us. We can't live here in the United States and assume that as long as we get it right here in the United States we'll be fine. It doesn't work that way.

So I think part of this discourse will be helping us all to understand the complexity of what we're dealing with around the world and really probably developing some things that we haven't had before that allows us to give the rest of the world a clearer picture of who we are as a nation.

Billy Collins, poet laureate

I think the poems that help at times like these are poems that are about the ordinary things in life … that will fit us back into the world that we seemed to be shaken out of by trauma … There's a wonderful little Haiku … "The moon at the window / At least the thief could not take that." The sense is someone's come home and their house has been robbed but the thief could not take the moon in the window. So terrorists can take some things, but there are other things they can't take. Poetry is a shrine in a way for many of the things that they cannot take.

There's a two-line poem by Czeslaw Milosz … "Transparent tree, full of migrating birds on a blue morning. Cold, because there is still snow in the mountains." A poem like that … is like a little pill that you take to settle yourself down. It is a way of providing a simple focus: tree, snow, sensation of coldness. Little poems like that seem very simple and inconsequential perhaps, but they're really prayers of gratitude to the mystery of existence and the mystery of being fitted so beautifully to a natural world.

Something like "America under attack" (if that is the slogan) shakes us out of our position in the world almost. It creates this disjuncture and discontinuity and I think that even the tiniest poem about some mushrooms or someone's skin — whatever the little subject may be — has a way of bringing us back and reconnecting us to what really is vital.

Someone described the state we're in now as the condition that occurs after you cut yourself, maybe washing a glass in the sink. You know you can see you've cut yourself, but you don't know how much it's going to hurt yet. It's that moment extended, you know, from last Tuesday to I don't know how long. I don't know how long that's going to take before we realize how much we actually hurt …

Tom Clancy, author

I think the American people are a heck of a lot smarter than our enemies — and some of our friends — give us credit for. We have 5,000 people to bury and 5,000 families are motherless or fatherless, or missing sons and daughters, and we're not going to forget that any time soon. The American people are going to want justice; and justice in this case means killing the people who declared war on us. And that's just the way things work …

The worst of circumstances most often bring out the best in people. The people that really get me in the gut are the cops and the firemen who ran into those buildings, doing search and rescue. Search and rescue's a line of work that the best people tend to get into …

People think Americans are soft … That's what Adolf Hitler thought of us and it's what the Japanese thought when they hit Pearl Harbor, that we weren't strong enough to fight back. Well, they found out they were wrong …

You know, the one movie I think that our enemies ought to look at before they, they mess with us, is Jeremiah Johnson, you know, the Robert Redford movie from the '70s …He's living out in the Rocky Mountains and the Crow Indians decide to take out his wife and kid, and he decides he's not going to tolerate that and kills a whole lot of Indians … He really took it personally when they wiped out his family, and he didn't stop going. He didn't stop going after them until they decided they'd had enough and they surrendered to him.

And that's who we are. Once we start moving, we don't stop. We just don't stop. It's like The Searchers, there's a line that John Wayne said: "They don't understand somebody that just keeps on coming." …

You accomplish nothing by killing innocent people … we've always tried to avoid that. It's not part of the American character to kill the innocent. But it is part of our character, though, to single out and destroy the guilty. And that's what we're going to do …