Philadelphia The late Colombian cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar, one of the most violent terrorists of modern times, put it succinctly.
"Terrorism is the atom bomb for the poor," he said, referring to those who are enemies of the wealthy nations of the world.
The coordinated attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Tuesday lacked the destructive potential of a nuclear weapon, but the impact was tantamount to one.
Americans, finding it hard to fathom the determined hatred that would drive anyone to carefully plan and execute such acts, are asking: Why us?
"The World Trade Center is a symbol of American capitalism, and from the point of view of probable terrorists, a symbol of American decadence," said Jim Hedtke, chairman of the history and political science department at Cabrini College.
"The victims in the planes and the buildings were not the real targets of the attack. The intended victims were you and me."
Most speculation about the attacks concerned the Middle East, where disaffected Arab groups have long blamed the United States for their plight. In the case of Palestinian extremists, America is the prime support for the state of Israel. In the case of Iraq, the United States led the coalition that drove Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait, and which daily enforces punishing sanctions including bombing missions that have killed civilians in recent days.
"America bears responsibility for its actions and clear support of aggressive nations like Israel," said Asem Mussafar, a psychology graduate student in the West Bank town of Ramallah. "I hope America will understand this message today."
The message goes beyond the obvious political ones. More traditional cultures are deeply threatened by the rapid worldwide spread of American culture, which includes everything from cinema, television, clothing, and fast food to basic values such as democracy, individual freedom, personal rights, and a strictly secular state.
"To some extent, America is being made a victim of its own success," said Ahmad Chalabi, a member of the Iraqi National Congress, an organization of Iraqi expatriates opposed to the regime of Hussein.
Chalabi believes that the threat America poses to more traditional cultures strikes in their homes.
"America has a huge appeal to young people all over the world," he said. "They want more and more freedom. They want to dress like Americans, talk like Americans. And societies that lack a credible, equally attractive alternative feel like their world is being undermined by this power they cannot stop."
So America becomes, as the late Ayatollah Khomeni of Iraq called it, "The Great Satan."
"You don't need to be a rocket scientist to understand the roots of such hatred," said an Iranian graduate student who asked not to be named. "I think the closest analogy is to a slave revolt. Slave revolts are always especially bloody, violent affairs because the slaves seek to exact retribution from their masters. For decades now, civilians in Arab countries are being killed all the time, and the world doesn't react with outrage. So a kind of primitive, biblical logic takes over. An eye for an eye."
That could explain the celebrations Tuesday in some parts of the West Bank and Gaza.
"What's happening in America is a natural punishment for its continuous aggression on the weak and poor people in the world," said Abdullah Shami, a senior political leader for the Islamic Jihad in Gaza City. "The FBI, the CIA and all the military could not prevent what happened today."