It was a date that will live in infamy. Just as Dec. 7, 1941, was the day upon which all Americans realized that they are not free from foreign attack, Sept. 11, 2001, will live on in the collective consciousness of the American people as the day they learned they were not safe from terrorism. Not just any kind of terrorism-but efficient, cold-blooded slaughter on a mass scale.
The death tolls from the coordinated attacks on Washington and New York will surely rise into the hundreds and probably thousands. The psychic injury will be equally vast.
Officials have long warned that America's borders are porous and its people mobile and free-wheeling-ideal conditions for terrorists who want to penetrate and kill. But despite the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center and the Oklahoma City bombing, and despite all the talk about Osama bin Laden's worldwide terror network, the message never really sunk in to ordinary Americans that they were vulnerable to attacks on a truly massive scale.
Now that has all changed, forever. The United States was already spending billions on counterterrorism. The FBI and CIA and an alphabet soup of security agencies have been trying to track global terrorism for years. Surely federal investigators working with foreign intelligence agencies have stifled numerous plots, far more than we know. But they missed the biggest one since the Japanese Navy launched warplanes against Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Now comes the blame-and the greatest manhunt ever. Already, Sen. John McCain is describing the attack as "an act of war," while Sen. Orrin Hatch, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee and a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is vowing to track down and "go after the bastards" who committed the crimes.
There will be more such calls in the hours and days ahead, but the task may be more difficult than it seems. Yes, the hijackers must have left some kind of trail. But they were sufficiently well organized and skillful to escape detection while simultaneously hijacking four planes. It is a certainty that any operation this bold and sophisticated operated through "cutouts," middlemen who provide a mask for the true author of the attacks.
True, Senator Hatch and others are already seeing bin Laden's "signature"-and in effect calling for his head. But some kind of evidence will be needed before the United States strikes back. And then there's the challenge of finding bin Laden, who was last reported hiding in Afghanistan.
President Bush is in the midst of a decision maker's nightmare. While many in the public and more than a few policy makers will be demanding blood revenge, and fast, he cannot afford to flail out blindly. He will be under terrible pressure to act, but with the risk of going after the wrong man.
The United States spends about $300 billion a year on defense. But defense against terrorism is very difficult. Israel is on a constant state of alert, yet it cannot stop routine suicide bombings. Now there will be calls to rein in the freedom of movement and communication-and privacy-that Americans take for granted. Apparently, metal detectors utterly failed to stop the hijackings. If flying was slow and cumbersome before, it will now become an ordeal. Worse will be the damage to the state of mind of the American people, the historic sense of security that was threatened but never really breached by World War II. Imagine: what if these people get nuclear weapons?