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In unfathomable way, we now know terror

By David M. Shribman, 9/12/2001

WASHINGTON - It was a day of infamy, but Sept. 11, 2001, was a day of infamy unlike any other.

It marked the most lethal attack on the United States in history. It marked the end of a period of incomparably carefree American optimism and openness. It marked the beginning of a period of incomprehensible domestic fear and vulnerability.

It was a day of violence, rage, mystery, grief, and, above all, the very terror that gave this form of warfare its name.

The multi-pronged assaults on the World Trade Center, the most potent symbol of American economic power, and on the Pentagon, the most formidable symbol of American military power, brought the nation into a war - the phrase was tossed around the capital with increasing frequency as the day progressed - unlike any the nation has fought before.

It also brought the nation to a breathless, terrified standstill.

And in that standstill - in a hushed moment of trembling fright, sensed coast to coast, shared by millions - there was the unmistakable feeling that a barrier had been crossed, that the country, and all of its sunny assumptions of safety and its feeling of breezy confidence, had changed.

This is a different country this morning.

The two towers of the World Trade Center are gone, and along with them the entire way we looked at life - the way we regarded signature buildings gleaming on the waterfront, for example, or shiny airliners heading to the coast - has disappeared. American security has been breached, and our sense of security is gone.

Yesterday was an indelible marker. For political scientists, it was the moment the nation finally realized that its most dangerous foes weren't hostile nation-states engaged in the sort of power-politics that dominated the world from the Congress of Vienna to the fall of the Berlin Wall. For military strategists, it was the moment when the conventional tools of deterrence and intelligence that had shielded the nation since the dawn of the Cold War finally failed. For the rest of us, it was the moment when words failed, when the customary comparisons couldn't be applied.

The day, to be sure, had echoes of Pearl Harbor - an abrupt attack, the sudden ending of America's isolation from the threats that had enveloped much of the world, the swift mobilization of military and guard units. And though the Pearl Harbor allusion filled the air yesterday, this was not a conventional attack of war, the enemy is not known (and may not even be foreign), and no obvious response is available.

But the effect of the events of yesterday was unambiguous. The unfathomable suddenly became credible.

And that process - where the power was drained from the word unbelievable in just the passing of a few hours - was shared by Americans everywhere.

All day long the barriers to credulity tumbled. Just when it was difficult to conceive of a plane barreling into the World Trade Center, the sight of another jetliner heading toward the other tower appeared on television. That overloaded the senses - until the report that the Pentagon was aflame, the target of another plane.

By the time accounts of the fourth jetliner reached the public, the resistance to the terrible truth was gone. It made sense, even though it made no sense at all.

Then, for hours, throughout the country, people fled to the safety of their homes. But they didn't feel safe. They knew that the same thing could happen again, in a few hours, or maybe in a few days.

They knew that the attacks defied comprehension and defied expectations, but that they did not defy logic. Experts have been saying a terrorism spectacular was possible, likely, or perhaps - though philosophers and historians differ over whether such a concept exists - even inevitable.

Now it has happened, and it occurred not at the Super Bowl (some novelists' fantasy) or at the millennium celebrations (some terrorists' actual plans), but on a completely ordinary Tuesday that began like any ordinary day - a Tuesday, when, fatefully, planes took off from Boston and Newark and Washington, just as they always do, and when the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were full of workers.

Indeed, it was the very ordinariness of the day that underlined the vulnerability of the age. Moreover, the very magnitude of the horror underlined the ties that bind Americans at times of national challenge.

On the surface, seven major American cities were touched by this attack - New York, Boston, Washington, Newark, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. But we were all touched by it.

The passengers on the airliners were people in transit. The victims in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have relatives everywhere. The images of the smoke pouring from the buildings, and of the ambulances racing, and of mere passersby becoming unwitting and unwilling witnesses to history, were seen by us all.

Yesterday, Sept. 11, 2001, was a day of infamy. But it was not Pearl Harbor in 1941, not the seizing of the hostages in Tehran in 1979, not the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, not the carnage at Oklahoma City in 1995. It was a horror all its own, and before long it will be a noun all its own.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 9/12/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.