The destruction in war of a country's landmarks constitutes one test of its people's mettle. A message of sympathy to me from a friend in Bosnia-Herzegovina on the Sept. 11 events in New York and Washington pushed me into dark reflections about what is different - and what is the same - about our current situation and that of other countries I have lived in that suffered damage of this nature.
It is a difficult and painful subject to address. People must be allowed to express their emotions. At the same time, not speaking of the people who died, a building is, after all, a building. I found a New York Times editorial comparing lower Manhattan to Pompeii the day after the attacks to be lacking in understanding of the unique character of manmade carnage and urban damage.
I have spent about nine years of my life in cities that have suffered such damage. These have included Kinshasa, Congo; Beirut, Lebanon; Mogadishu, Somalia, and, most recently, Mostar in Bosnia-Herzegovina. There is something ineffably sad about a stripped and looted luxury hotel in Kinshasa; the shell of the Lebanese national museum on the Green Line in Beirut; the gleaming white, roofless buildings of seaside Mogadishu, and the Old City and fallen “signature” arched bridge of Mostar, a place of 16th-century buildings and late 20th-century ruins.
There was intrinsic beauty in such now-fallen buildings, including the modern World Trade Center's twin towers and the austere but reassuring Pentagon. But, more to the point, these were places where people lived and worked, places full of life. Now lying in ruins, and not by accident - through man acting at his worst, not building, not adorning - instead, destroying, and, worst of all, killing people in the process.
The idea that killing civilians in warfare constitutes “collateral damage” - unintended damage - was overtaken by the events that comprised warfare in the 20th century. Trashing civilian buildings or monuments and killing civilians have occurred so often in recent years that we scarcely remark it when it occurs. It is not that it has become legitimate or legal under rules of war; it is simply that we have become accustomed to its face.
And it has largely lost its impact on the outcome of wars. Americans - and for this we must thank God or genes for our indomitable spirit - will not shift an inch on our principles because of what happened to us Sept. 11.
An important measure of a country's mettle in the face of destruction of its landmarks is its approach to subsequent rebuilding. Americans will now face this issue with regard to the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The people of Mostar in Bosnia-Herzegovina have been slow to reconstruct their city, saying that if they do so, people will forget the horror of what they did to each other and risk repeating it. The Poles rebuilt a flattened Warsaw according to the original plans of the city.
The people of Oklahoma City turned the Murrah Federal Building site into a memorial. The Lebanese continue to work on Beirut. The Somalis and Congolese profess to have no money to put their buildings back up, and in neither place is it clear yet that someone won't knock them down again if they do so.
Let's rebuild the World Trade Center towers - two grand fingers to the sky, and an eloquent two-finger gesture to the criminals who knocked them down.
Dan Simpson joined The Blade this month as an associate editor. A retired career diplomat, he served as U.S. ambassador to Congo, Somalia, and the Central African Republic.