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Wednesday, September 19, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Michael Kelly / Syndicated columnist

The terrible light helps us remember who we are

The idea that everything changed, utterly, on Sept. 11 is, in a vitally important way, false. Rudy Giuliani demonstrated this perfectly, as he has done everything perfectly, when he chose to keep a commitment to stand in at the wedding of a fatherless bride whose brother had died in a recent New York fire. People still get married, the mayor reminded us; life goes on and life is good.

For this most basic truth, this latest war against America must fail. Terror always fails; those who believe in terror's strength to destroy the will of a people to persist in life are always proved wrong by the simple refusal of the people to permit this to happen.

But if the change is not utter, it is profound. What happened on Sept. 11 recalled to us who we are and what our values are. We remember that we are not who those who hate our nation say we are, and our values are not what they say they are.

On the morning of Sept. 11, as it happened, The New York Times ran a story that was very typical of the Times in recent years. The story warmly profiled the life — and plugged the memoirs — of a former 1970s radical and terrorist bomber named Bill Ayers.

"I don't regret setting bombs," Ayers was quoted in the lead. "I feel we didn't do enough." Ayers boasts in his book that he took part in the 1970s bombings of the New York City police headquarters, the U.S. Capitol and the Pentagon. The Times called these "daring acts in his youth."

The Times found Ayers to be possessed of an "ebullient, ingratiating manner," and accorded him the respect of 2,000 words in the paper plus a generally fawning and deeply stupid interview in the Sept. 16 New York Times Magazine, which was printed before the events of Sept. 11.

Ayers' contention, uncritically accepted by the Times, that "this society is not a just and fair and decent place," has been for decades a foundation-lie and essential tool of justification for those who would destroy that society. This has not been limited to the radicals of the left, but has been of equal service to the radical right.

On the Sept. 13 edition of "The 700 Club," Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson had a little chat. Falwell mused that "what we saw on Tuesday . . . could be minuscule if in fact God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve."

To give us probably what we deserve. Robertson enthusiastically agreed with this blasphemy. Falwell went on to note that "the abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked," and he and Robertson agreed that feminists, "the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle," and the ACLU also "helped this happen."

I don't think the Times will ever print another story celebrating political bombings as "daring acts." I don't think Robertson and Falwell will ever again be regarded by most Americans with anything other than the deepest contempt. I think that the perverted values of those on the left and the right who hate this country for being what it is — a liberal democracy — are now seen for what they are, in the terrible light of Sept. 11. We have recovered who we are.

On Monday, David Letterman returned to the air. Approaching open tears, he swore to his audience and to himself that he would never forget that police officers and firefighters were heroes — men and women who put themselves in harm's way to protect us.

Yes, we remember that now. We remember that it is not creatures like Bill Ayers that we treasure but those who protect us from creatures like Bill Ayers. We remember that love of country is a wonderful thing; that it is not incompatible with a liberal society but the great force that binds together that society.

We are reminded that our values are not the values that the civilization-trashers of Hollywood join the civilization-haters of the Taliban in ascribing to us, the values of "Fear Factor."

We remind ourselves, as David Letterman did, that our real values are the ones that led hundreds of firefighters and police officers to risk and lose their lives.

We are, we learn again, brave and compassionate and strong. We are good people and we have built what is in fact "a just and fair and decent place," and we will preserve this place from those who would destroy it.

Michael Kelly's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. The Washington Post Writers Group can be contacted via e-mail at writersgrp@washpost.com.

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