And what will our response be? In the past, American retaliatory strikes have always striven to be "proportional" and "surgical," hitting targets like terrorist training bases or bomb factories. That is likely to change. "Clearly, a surgical response has not been effective in terms of deterrence," Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican, told U.S. News. "I believe a massive response is called for. I am willing to accept the loss of civilian life. I don't advocate wantonly harming innocent civilians or carpet bombing, but civilian casualties should not deter us."
Later, a senior official said that the Bush administration was targeting an entire terrorist network as opposed to an individual nation. The official noted that the administration would not engage in a single retaliatory strike for the sake of making a point.
America is locked and loaded, but it lacks a target. Our military might is huge, but whom do we use it on? Our Navy sent two $5 billion aircraft carriers to the waters off New York after the attacks there—but both were powerless to avenge our losses.
At a news conference Wednesday, Attorney General John Ashcroft said the hijackers had used three to six individuals per plane and were armed with knives and retractable-bladed "box cutters." Some also claimed to have bombs on board.
Like many others, McCain sees a vastly more complicated air travel system in America's future. "Our lives will never be the same again," he said. When every plane can become a potential missile, airport security is likely to grow fierce. Showing up only an hour early for a flight may soon be remembered as the "good old days" of air travel. Sky marshals, who once were armed and flew on planes for the specific purpose of stopping hijackers, may return to American flights. "Airport check-in and searches are going to be much more stringent," McCain said. "The Israelis have an excellent record, and they keep undercover agents on airplanes, disguised as passengers."
But how could so many terrorists sneak so many knives onto planes? How could they overpower four different crews that had supposedly received antiterrorist training? (However, on the fourth plane, which crashed in Pennsylvania, courageous passengers evidently overpowered the terrorists and foiled an attempt to crash the plane into the White House.) How could terrorists skillfully fly a technically advanced plane just hundreds of feet above the ground to hit the Pentagon when it takes years of training and experience to become a licensed 757 pilot?
The answer? With surprising ease.
The General Accounting Office last year criticized airport security, saying testers were frequently able to sneak weapons past screeners and onto planes. And the Federal Aviation Administration has levied hefty fines for numerous security violations from 1997 through 1999 at Boston's Logan Airport. And the terrorists' weapon of choice—an easily concealed knife–proved both stealthy and deadly. Knives with blades less than 4 inches long are actually legal to carry aboard a U.S. commercial airline.
Once they had the knives on the plane, they probably took control easily, experts say. Since most previous hijackings have ended with few deaths or injuries—the most recent hijacking was in 1991 and uneventful—airline crews often try to placate hijackers. The hijackers typically wanted publicity for a political cause or a free ride to Cuba.
Calls from frantic passengers on board Tuesday's hijacked planes to loved ones on the ground indicate the terrorists started slashing or stabbing flight attendants. Once that happened, experts say, the pilots were likely to open the cockpit door and try to help. Soon, they too were likely attacked or held at bay, and apparently one or more terrorists took the plane's controls.
And although a cockpit may look daunting to a passenger's glance, modern planes are comparatively easy to fly. Taking off and landing, however, are other matters. From published flight tracks of the hijacked aircraft, considerable navigation was involved to divert the planes from their paths and maneuver them hundreds of miles to hit their targets. But today's planes are so sophisticated that the navigation is actually easier. Moreover, evidence was mounting Wednesday that the terrorists had learned adeptly how to maneuver Boeing 757s and 767s. The Boston Herald reported that two men on the manifest of one hijacked plane held passports traced to the United Arab Emirates and that one was a trained pilot. Police discovered Arabic-language flight training manuals in a car parked at Logan Airport. An Arab flight student, who took instruction at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, was reported missing, and police were checking on two other men who took flight instruction while living in Florida.