If You Want To Humble An Empire

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LYLE OWERKO / POLARIS

(10 of 20)

Meanwhile, the mood on board Air Force One could not have been more tense. Bush was in his office in the front of the plane, on the phone with Cheney, National Security Adviser Rice, FBI director Robert Mueller and the First Lady. Cheney told him that law-enforcement and security agencies believed the White House and Air Force One were both targets. Bush, the Vice President insisted, should head to a safe military base as soon as possible. White House staff members, Air Force flight attendants and Secret Service agents all were subdued and shaken. One agent sadly reported that the Secret Service field office in New York City, with its 200 agents, was located in the World Trade Center. The plane's TV monitors were tuned in to local news broadcasts; Bush was watching as the second tower collapsed. About 45 minutes after takeoff, a decision was made to fly to Offut Air Force Base in Nebraska, site of the nation's nuclear command and one of the most secure military installations in the country. But Bush and his aides didn't want to wait that long before the President could make a public statement. Secret Service officials and military advisers in Washington consulted a map and chose a spot for Bush to make a brief touchdown: Barksdale Air Force Base, outside of Shreveport, La. In Bush's airborne office, aides milled about while Bush spoke on the phone. "That's what we're paid for, boys," he said. "We're gonna take care of this. We're going to find out who did this. They're not going to like me as President." The handful of reporters aboard were told not to use their cell phones — and not even to turn them on — because the signals might allow someone to identify the plane's location.

Air Force One landed at Barksdale at 11:45 a.m., with fighter jets hovering beside each wing throughout the descent. The perimeter was surrounded by Air Force personnel in full combat gear: green fatigues, flak jackets, helmets, M-16s at the ready. The small motorcade traveled to Building 245. A sign on the glass windows of several doors, in large black type, read DEFCON DELTA. That is the highest possible state of military alert. Bush made his second remarks at 12:36 from a windowless conference room, in front of two American flags dragged together by Air Force privates. "Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward," he began, then spoke for two minutes before leaving the room.

In New York, the chaos was only beginning. Convoys of police vehicles raced downtown toward the cloud of smoke at the end of the avenues. The streets and parks filled with people, heads turned like sunflowers, all gazing south, at the clouds that were on the ground instead of in the sky, at the fighter jets streaking down the Hudson River. The aircraft carriers U.S.S. John F. Kennedy and U.S.S. George Washington, along with seven other warships, took up positions off the East Coast.

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