PARIS -- Not too many years ago, on one of the top floors of New York's World Trade Center that is no more, I interviewed American diplomat John J. McCloy about the Black Tom explosion that also rocked New York Harbor and lower Manhattan 85 years ago.
McCloy was the lead investigator of the explosion that shattered thousands of skyscraper windows on Wall Street and environs on the night of July 30, 1916, convincing thousands of shaken New Yorkers that the Great War in Europe had finally and startlingly come to America.
From McCloy's office high in the latest wonder of American architecture, we could see what used to be called Black Tom Island across the Hudson River on the New Jersey side, where German saboteurs had ignited a massive munitions depot laden with cargo destined for England and France.
That explosion, more than a year before America's entry into the war to end all wars, was an act of belligerence against a nation at peace, just as the suicide destruction by hijacked airliners Tuesday morning crumbled the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
In 1916, the United States, though neutral, was selling weapons on a come-and-get-them basis, and only the Allied powers with control of the seas could patronize what we billed ourselves as: "the Arsenal of Democracy."
So German saboteurs did what for them was the next best thing -- they blew sky-high the vast munitions cache stored on Black Tom. It was not long after World War I that responsibility for the explosion and subsequent acts of sabotage was admitted by Germany. One ramification of the experience was creation of the FBI to deal with threats to American security.
Not surprisingly, President Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, congressional leaders and most of the world community have met the outrage with pledges to seek out and punish the perpetrators. But until and unless they are identified beyond reasonable doubt, the United States must abide its response and take care to preserve the nearly worldwide consensus that terrorism must be dealt with as a threat against all civilized nations.
The first American response, correctly, is the immense rescue and recovery operation under way in New York and Washington, where a similar skyjacking suicide mission destroyed a portion of the Pentagon and claimed yet untold American lives.
Then the task will be not only to finger and deal retribution upon the guilty but also to harness the international revulsion against those acts in a concerted response to the terrorist threat in America and around the world.
For too long, the United States had adopted an attitude of "it can't happen here," bred of the security of our broad ocean boundaries that no longer guarantee us invulnerability.
It may be tempting for the president to point to the World Trade Center and Pentagon tragedies as further arguments for his campaign to build a missile defense shield against "rogue state" terrorism. But these incidents have demonstrated all too decisively that ballistic missiles are not required to rain devastation on America.
The diabolically audacious use of hijacked airliners has shown that the democracies have no window of time in which to develop an effective defense against terrorism. A major tightening of airport security, once proposed by former President Bill Clinton but never fully enforced, is imperative now.
Beyond that, the United States must provide the immediate leadership in creating an international shield against terrorism that we now understand all too well can be delivered again today and tomorrow by means already at hand.
Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun