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Senior Sara Brin was moved to write the following commentary after listening to President Bush's address to the nation following the September 11 terrorist attacks. It was broadcast twice on WFCR, public radio for the Pioneer Valley, during Morning Edition on September 19; the broadcast generated numerous requests for copies of the essay.

At 8:48 a.m. September 11, the United States became a victim of an extraordinarily effective affront to its political, psychological and national sense of security. President Bush, en route from Florida, was quickly moved to address the nation, telling citizens that we would "unite in our resolve for justice and peace." America, he assured us, "has stood down enemies before, and we will do so this time." He gave us his prayers in the form of Psalm 23. And then he cemented the responsibility for the attack not only on the individual terrorists but also on states that would "harbor" them. He did not place immediate blame but neither did he allow governments to rescind all responsibility. President Bush gave me, as an American, the words I needed to remember how strong our country is, what we stand for, our history of standing united. He gave me, as a student of American politics, faith that the U.S. government's search for justice would be unstinting.

It wasn't until the next morning, as the morning news shows replayed sound bites from Bush's press conference, that the terrible ambiguity of the president's remarks became clear to me. Bush explained to the American public that the events of September 11 were "more than acts of terror, they were acts of war" -- in my view, a serious misinterpretation of the facts. While I can appreciate, emotionally, his attempt to convey the gravity of the attacks, and while, intellectually, I can see that the executive branch was paving the way toward a response, nonetheless I have found myself taking deep offense. When considered literally, Bush's reference to acts of war subtracts dramatically from the indecency of what has taken place.

A war denotes a situation in which two states are involved and in which rules of engagement generally prevail. Civilians are not legitimate targets. Strategies are created to avoid harming the innocent. Targets are generally chosen for their military or strategic significance rather than for their symbolic impact. Surprise attacks are, indeed, common but there are no situations of war where a country is unaware of its enemy's identity.

That the United States experienced a serious and inconceivable attack is undeniable. No anti-missile system, government intelligence or domestic security measure could have predicted or prevented this breach of sanity. There were no wartime measures in place because the U.S. was not at war. This is the point of terrorism. It goes beyond a nation's scope of the possible and, in the United State's case, actually used our own liberties against us.

It could be argued that the World Trade Center, home to major financial enterprises, was a strategic economic target; obviously, the Pentagon is a key military target. Perhaps, then, these attacks could be justified in a time of war by an offending nation as militarily viable. Yet even when trying desperately to put these attacks into a wartime scenario there can be no rationalization for the deaths of hundreds of civilian airline passengers. These were men, women and children on vacation, visiting loved ones and returning to universities and jobs in neither New York nor Washington, D.C.

The events of September 11 were not acts of war. They were terrorist proceedings of the most vile and unimaginable type. The victims at the World Trade Center, Pentagon and on the airliners were not enlisted in a conflict. These men and women did not consciously perceive a threat and were not engaged as citizens of our country in a military conflict outside or within the United States. To call the terrorist attacks "acts of war" does not allow the families of the victims to experience and express the true indignation, the pure outpouring of rage and sorrow, that their losses must engender. By its very nature, an act of terrorism is far more violating than an act of war.

By invoking the simple phrase "acts of war," President Bush has, perhaps unintentionally but certainly ironically, denied Americans their right to fully mourn. In attempting to find words to portray the seriousness of the attacks, he has chosen a phrase that, when taken literally, sanitizes the attacks of their most violating dimensions. The losses Americans suffered and will continue to suffer are not casualties of war but instead something far more evil -- perhaps more evil than words could ever convey.

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