Shock, denial, anger and depression swept the country on Sept. 11 as the nation watched thousands of civilians and military people viciously murdered by terrorists. Not since Pearl Harbor has the United States suffered such a devastating attack on its soil, and the number of dead exceeds those killed on that day. Both days will now live in infamy.
As we go to press, many things are still unclear: How many died? Who planned and implemented the attack? And why did our intelligence and security systems fail?
Some things, however, are clear. The attack was not the work of a few crazed fanatics. This conspiracy was well planned and well organized. Many people were involved who had to be recruited, indoctrinated and trained to execute a complicated plan that required coordination and split-second timing. They were able to enter the country, bypass airport security, take over four jet airliners and fly them successfully to three of their targets—all on the same morning. Few terrorist organizations could have accomplished such a sophisticated attack with such precision.
The attack also made clear that the United States can no longer fool itself into believing that our oceans isolate us from the concerns and crises of the rest of the world. Nor are we so powerful that no harm can touch us. We may be the world’s only superpower, but we are not safe from terrorism, and all the weapons and technology in the world will not make us safe. Only a united world community can stop organized terrorism, and such solidarity will not be achieved if the United States is seen as a lone ranger going its own.
But the day belonged to heroes, not just villains. Hundreds of police, fire and emergency personnel responded to the disasters, and many lost their lives trying to save others. Countless government employees—those faceless bureaucrats much derided by opponents of taxes and “big government”—responded with dedication and courage.
Where do we go from here? The first task is to rescue those who may still be alive in the wreckage. The second is to continue the life and work of our democracy. Third, we must find out who planned and committed these crimes and respond appropriately. Finally, we must examine our intelligence and security systems to understand why they failed so that this does not happen again.
The last two items will be the most difficult and take the most time. At press time, pundits and rumors pointed to Osama bin Laden, currently living in Afghanistan, as the most likely mastermind behind the attacks. Whoever were involved must be brought to justice for their crimes. An act of war was committed against the United States, and while we abhor war and violence, a proportionate response is justified.
But hotheads who demand vengeance and an immediate military response should be ignored. That may be politically attractive, but it would be counterproductive. We must take time to plan and execute an appropriate response. This includes a diplomatic offensive on a par with that executed by former President Bush prior to the Persian Gulf war. To find and punish the terrorists will take an international effort. Even more important, to prevent attacks like these in the future, we will need the backing of the world community. And when military action is appropriate, it should avoid causing civilian casualties—that will just further inflame hatred of the United States. Every new orphan is a potential terrorist.
As the dust settles and the death toll mounts, it is almost obscene to say so, but the next time could be worse. If terrorists can launch a coordinated attack on two cities using four airplanes, they could also bring a nuclear device or biological weapon into a U.S. city. Our military and intelligence establishments are still geared up to fight the Cold War. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld attempted to force new thinking on the military but was countered by entrenched interests in the military and on Capitol Hill. Money wasted on no-longer-needed military bases and weapons systems (or useless missile defense systems) means less money for counterterrorism.
The American military and intelligence systems need to be closely examined and modified to the needs of today’s world, not yesterday’s. It will be easy to point fingers and assign blame. The more important task is to prepare the United States to face the decades ahead.
Our hearts go out to the thousands made widows, widowers and orphans by this despicable attack. We pray for them as they and the nation mourn their loss. Their lives are forever changed and broken by this act of senseless violence.
This was “a dark day in the history of humanity,” said Pope John Paul II. But “even if the forces of darkness appear to prevail, those who believe in God know that evil and death do not have the final say.”