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.
Who these fanatics are we still don't know. Several men were taken into custody for questioning in Massachusetts and Florida. But officials were quick to note that they had not been arrested and might not have anything to do with the crimes. President Bush called the attacks "more than acts of terror. They were," he told the nation, "acts of war."
And the scenes of devastation in New York and at the Pentagon certainly looked like battlegrounds. Everything around the World Trade Center was covered in gray ash, making the streets look like the surface of the moon. As one traveled farther away from ground zero, high-heeled shoes could be seen littering the streets as women abandoned fashion for survival. David Dolny, 49, watched the buildings collapse from nearby. "I sent my daughter to study for a year in Israel last week thinking more about danger to her than me," he said.
New York Sen. Chuck Schumer foresaw a terrible future. "This is the new form of warfare," he said.
In Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington, the jetliner that crashed into the Pentagon destroyed hundreds of the building's offices, slicing through the first two outer rings and halfway penetrating the third. As with the two jets that struck the World Trade Center, it banked to one side at the last second, evidently so that the plane's fuselage would crash through as many floors as possible. "At work, we had watched the attacks on the World Trade Center before we were hit," said Charles Lewis, a naval petty officer, from his hospital bed in suburban Virginia. "People in the office were commenting, 'If that can happen there, what's to stop it from happening here?'... No more than 10 minutes later it happened to us.
"We were thrown maybe 10 or 15 feet across the room," he said. "After the blast, I fell in the fetal position, all balled up. At the time of impact, everything went black." Many fled into the Pentagon's center courtyard, before realizing that it could be the site of another attack. Then they headed for the exits on the opposite side of the building. Once outside, the panic seemed to mount when warnings came about another possible attack.
Back across the river, Secret Service agents, some with weapons drawn, charged out of the White House yelling, "Everybody out! Everybody out!" to the startled tourists in line for White House tours. Allen Cashion of Newport Beach, Calif., had left his hotel room at 5:30 a.m. to snag the much-sought-after ticket. "It was chaos," he said. "I just picked up the kids, one under each arm, and ran. I didn't know what to do."
Bush was not at the White House—he was speaking in Florida—and would not return for some hours. On Capitol Hill, Sen. Max Cleland, a Georgia Democrat, could see smoke rising from the Pentagon. Cleland, who lost both his legs and his right arm in Vietnam, said he felt suddenly under attack. "I thought I was going through the Tet offensive all over again," he said. That sense of danger spread quickly. Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott had gathered his staff together after the attack in New York and also watched smoke rise from the Pentagon. Anticipating that a hit on the Pentagon might be a prelude to one on the Capitol, Lott ordered his staff out of the building and quickly left himself with his security detail. "We all instinctively knew that we had to get out of the Capitol," says Lott spokesman Ron Bonjean. "We left our computers on and got out of there because it was immediately obvious that there could be a plane headed our way."
All 19 buildings of the Capitol complex were evacuated, reminding some of when Congress and President James Madison fled the invading British in 1814. By the next day, however, everybody was back at work and asking questions. The first was: How could it happen? How could the FBI and CIA not have had an inkling that such a conspiracy existed? Where was American intelligence-gathering? Where was airport security? Where were the plans to foil an air attack on Washington buildings? (Ever since a small plane crashed on the White House South Lawn in 1994, such an attack has been openly talked about.)
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.
Bringing those responsible to justice will restore some measure of lost confidence, but many Americans, at the moment, believe things will never be the same. Even so, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle tried to sound a hopeful note. "I know that there is only the smallest measure of inspiration that can be taken from this devastation," he said. "But there is a passage in the Bible, from Isaiah, that I think speaks to all of us at times like this: 'The bricks have fallen down, but we will rebuild with dressed stone; the fig trees have been felled, but we will replace them with cedars.' "
With Lisa Stein, Kim Clark, Mark Mazzetti, Mary Lord, Angie Cannon, Chitra Ragavan, Richard J. Newman, Edward T. Pound, and Mary Brophy Marcus