Innocence Lost Forever on 9/11

In just one chilling hour, America joined the ranks of the lost innocents


Life as we know it in these United States ended Tuesday morning. In the place where the World Trade Center once stood, black smoke billowed against a heartbreakingly blue sky. All who saw it knew immediately there would never be no place like home again. We would never again feel completely safe. We would never again know sanctuary. On September 11, America joined the rest of the world: Terror had come home to us. It had struck us where we work and live. It had destroyed and set ablaze the very symbols of American power and might. The more "American" the symbol, the more likely it would be hit. In those first awful hours following the attacks in New York and on the Pentagon, America did the only thing it could—it went dark. Planes stopped flying. Congress fled the Capitol. The Liberty Bell was locked up. Disney World closed down. All across the nation, they stopped playing baseball.

It was an America no one had ever seen before: It was an America afraid. We don't even know how many thousand died.

And the terrorists made it look easy. The United States would not only provide the targets but we would provide the weapons of our own destruction: jet airliners loaded with fuel. We may have even provided the pilot training. Senior government analysts tell U.S. News that the two planes that crashed into the World Trade Center towers exploded with the force of 400,000 pounds of TNT; the plane that smashed into the southwest facade of the Pentagon exploded with 200,000 pounds of force. It was the classic tactic of the guerrilla fighter: Where the enemy is strong, use his strength against him.

And suddenly terrorists were something more than ill-dressed men with scruffy beards who did their dirty work half a world away. Suddenly, they were capable of carrying out a highly sophisticated, highly coordinated, and incredibly deadly attack in our very midst. By combing passenger manifests, investigators believe they know the hijackers'—from three to six per plane—identities. They are not bound by national origin, sources say, but more likely by radical Islamic ideology. Not since Americans realized that small men in black pajamas could neutralize our military might in Vietnam has there been such a shock to our system and blow to our pride.

Nor did the terrorists strike at America where our democracy makes us the most vulnerable—a large public gathering, for instance, where security risks loom large. Instead they struck where our security was, presumably, strongest: at airports with metal detectors, baggage screening, and armed guards. Yet a group of terrorists, possibly linked to Osama bin Laden, picked up American jetliners at three different airports with the seeming ease of teenagers choosing cars for a joyride.

On the morning of the attacks, as President Bush was being shuttled from military base to military base aboard Air Force One like a pea being hidden under a shell, it was clear that any target was vulnerable. Indeed, officials said they had evidence the White House and Air Force One had been targeted. So after the attack on the Pentagon, U.S. F-16 fighter jets circled over Washington, awaiting presidential orders to shoot down any passenger plane that looked like it was seeking a new target. And there were 2,200 planes in the nation's skies—all carefully monitored by Vice President Cheney and senior White House officials—right after the attacks began. Fortunately, there were no more rogue planes. Yet the only defense against immediate future attacks was to shut the system down. For the first time in U.S. history, all planes were grounded, so terrorists could not seize more of them. It left America feeling the same way crime victims feel: vulnerable, naked, no longer in control.

Even more terrifying was that the terrorists were making no demands of us. They were not asking for the release of prisoners, the return of a despot for trial, or the payment of ransom. They were simply killing Americans because their goal was to kill Americans. True, they could do so only at the cost of their own lives. But the organizers of the attack seemingly had no trouble finding people who not only had the skill and sophistication to carry off such an assault but who would willingly face—even welcome—their own deaths.