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Columnist's words on attack spread, draws 21,000 e-mails

September 18, 2001

MIAMI — Leonard Pitts Jr. saw the images of death and destruction from New York and Washington unfold on television and struggled through shock and sadness to do his job: find something to say.

The Miami Herald columnist and author went with his gut feeling _ anger _ and wrote nearly 700 words directed at the then-faceless terrorists. He assured those responsible that Americans would not break, they would rally.

words have rallied thousands across the globe. Like a chain letter, his column has been passed along countless times over the Internet. Readers have flooded his voice mail, and sent him 21,000 e-mails since Wednesday morning.

``I used to think I knew what it was like to get a strong response,'' Pitts said Monday from his home in Bowie, Md. ``I've never even imagined anything like this.''

Pitts, 43, was driving his daughter to school last Tuesday when he heard that a passenger jet had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers in New York.

Minutes later, as he pulled into his driveway, he heard about the second plane barreling into the other 110-floor tower, and a cold dread that the crashes were deliberate began to sink in.

``It seemed and it still seems like something out of Tom Clancy's books,'' he said.

He ran to his upstairs home office and watched the news with a computer on his lap, knowing that the column he had intended to write on Andrea Yates, the Houston woman accused of drowning her five children, would have to wait.

``I had to sit there for a while and figure out what I was feeling,'' Pitts said. His gut response was ``anger at the callousness and the audacity of these people.''

``After I decided that, most of it came out very quickly,'' he said.

The headline on Pitts' column was ``We'll go forward from this moment.'' In it Pitts asks a nameless terrorist what lessons he hoped to teach Americans with the suicide hijackings.

``Did you want us to respect your cause? You just damned your cause. Did you want to make us fear? You just steeled our resolve. Did you want to tear us apart? You just brought us together,'' he wrote.

Pitts tells the terrorist that Americans are a ``vast and quarrelsome family'' divided by social differences, often preoccupied with materialism and pop culture, but a fundamentally decent, peace-loving and compassionate people of faith.

``You don't know my people,'' he wrote. ``You don't know what we're capable of. You don't know what you just started. But you're about to learn.''

The responses to Pitts' syndicated column, which regularly appears in more than 100 newspapers worldwide, have been mostly favorable, he said.

``I think it just struck people,'' he said. ''(It was) the words that they needed to hear at the time they needed to hear them.''

Pitts, who began his 25-year journalism career as a music critic, said he read about one thousand of the missives, including a handful of unfavorable ones. One reader called his column ``naive and jingoistic.''

Some readers were concerned about the looming retaliation by the U.S. military in Asia. Another argued Americans should try to understand why the terrorists and their supporters in the Middle East hate the United States.

Pitts said he has mixed feelings over the attention his column has garnered.

``I would rather not have touched everybody if this was the cost,'' he said. ``I wish I hadn't had to write it.''

By ALEX VEIGA, Associated Press. Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel


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