Special Report: The Day of the Attack

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CHARLES KRUPA/AP

The day after the attack, the sun rises over where the World Trade Towers stood in lower Manhattan

(11 of 11)

Even had they known more, could officials ever have contemplated the scale of this thing? The blasts were so powerful that counterterrorism teams have begun asking the airlines for fuel loads on the plane; aviation experts have been asked to calculate the explosive yield of each blast--in kiloton terms. The reason? Washington wants to see if the planes amounted to weapons of mass destruction. "What we want people to realize is they've crossed a line here," said a U.S. intelligence official. In fact, some senior Administration officials are considering drafting a declaration of war, although the State Department is leery since nobody knows precisely who the war would be against.

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By contrast, as the day unfolded, it looked awfully easy to declare war on us. The attack was the perfect mockery of the President's faith in missile defense: What if the missile is an American Airlines plane, and the pilot wants to kill you? It was only eight years ago that a group of zealots led by Ramzi Yousef tried to take the towers down from the bottom, with a rented Ryder truck full of homemade explosives. Their goal, as an unsigned statement presented later at trial put it, was no less than toppling "the towers that constitute the pillars of their civilization."

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.

Do we now panic, or will we be brave? Once the dump trucks and bulldozers have cleared away the rubble and a thousand funeral Masses have been said, once the streets are swept clean of ash and glass and the stores and monuments and airports reopen, once we have begun to explain this to our children and to ourselves, what will we do? What else but build new cathedrals, and if they are bombed, build some more. Because the faith is in the act of building, not the building itself, and no amount of terror can keep us from scraping the sky.

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