If You Want To Humble An Empire

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LYLE OWERKO / POLARIS

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U.S. officials learned a great deal from that attempt, notes retired ATF investigator Baughn. But the terrorists also learned. "They learned that they had to come at it from a different attitude," Baughn says. "What they've done today was the easiest thing they could do. They didn't have to bring in any explosives. They didn't have to put a group of people together. They didn't have to go find a safe house. They didn't have to go construct anything. They didn't have to rent a truck. They didn't have to load the truck. They didn't have to drive it to some place. All they had to do was hijack an airplane." They made it look so easy, you wondered if the only reason the U.S. has not seen a hijacking in 20 years was because hardly anyone was trying. It's a wonder why not; the Microsoft flight simulator and Fly! II — the two most popular simulators for personal computers — allow you to pretend to fly between the World Trade Center towers, and into them. Anyone looking to practice can buy the software off the shelf.

At 7:30 P.M. Tuesday, with the Pentagon still in flames, the congressional leadership, with a crowd of Senators and Congressmen behind them, stood on the Capitol steps. "When Americans suffer and when people perpetrate acts against this country, we as a Congress and as a government stand united, and stand together," said an angry Dennis Hastert, Speaker of the House, with Democrat Dick Gephardt standing stony silent beside him. Both parties "will stand shoulder to shoulder to fight this evil," Hastert promised. He asked everyone to bow their heads in a moment of silence. Afterward the Congressmen and Senators, Republicans hugging Democrats, broke out into a chorus of God Bless America.

As patriotism swelled, the day threatened to loop us into the kinds of barbaric blood feuds from which we've always been able to stay away. So people lashed out, getting angry at our not very humble foreign policy, complaining about a culture of ironic detachment that made us unmoved by a threat that was very real. (Though in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, pollsters found that by a huge proportion, 80%, Americans were ready to go to war, and prepared for the body bags that go with it.)

Whatever the outcome, it was clear that some things had changed forever. The attacks will become a defining reference point for our culture and imagination, a question of before and after, safe and scarred. By 10:30 Tuesday morning, four tourists from the Czech Republic were at the Empire State building, buying up all the postcards with pictures of the World Trade Center on them. "Soon there will be no more of these cards also," one explained.

When one world ended at 8:45 on Tuesday morning, another was born, one we always trust in but never see, in which normal people become fierce heroes and everyone takes a test for which they haven't studied. As President Bush said in his speech to the nation, we are left with both a terrible sadness and a quiet unyielding anger. He was wrong, though, to talk of the steel of our resolve. Steel, we now know, bends and melts; we need to be made of something stronger than that now — not excluding an unseasoned President new to his job.

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