Americans were caught off guard as they saw the first gaping, inflamed crater in the side of the World Trade Center. Television cameras did not record what caused this first catastrophe but caught only the aftermath. Few at this time knew America was in the midst of a cascading terrorist onslaught.
As viewers tuned in trying to figure out exactly what had happened and television correspondents mulled over the possibility that this was simply a horrible accident, the second plane hit, erasing any doubt as to the true nature of the calamity.
Then, reports that a third plane had careened into the side of the Pentagon began circulating, and anyone watching images of this symbol of American military prowess spewing smoke knew the scope of the terror was unlike anything the United States, or the world, had ever seen.
Still, the bedlam had not yet come to a conclusion. First, the south tower of the World Trade Center crumbled to the ground, followed by the north tower 25 minutes later. As CNN”s Jeff Greenfield put it, the day may have come that America”s luck simply ran out.
For Americans as a people, a terrorist act of this magnitude is particularly hard to stomach. Oklahoma City, with its 168 fatalities, was unthinkable to most, as was the first siege on the World Trade Center in 1993 that claimed the lives of 6 people. Invulnerability has been central to the American mindset for nearly a century, a fact that helps to explain the “how could this happen here” sentiment echoed when any terrorist tragedy occurs.
“Historically, the reason why we have felt so invulnerable is because of the oceans the idea that someone would have to come so far” has given us a false sense of security, said history Prof. Jonathan Marwil.
“Despite the power of our military, despite the distance of our so-called enemies, it doesn”t take very much to reach us at all.”
Yesterday”s events have already far surpassed Oklahoma City as the most horrific act of terrorism on American soil, yet one can only speculate at this point on the impact this will have on the national psyche.
“The bottom line is that as bad as the “93 attack was, it pales in comparison,” said Law Prof. Robert Precht, who was an attorney for one of the four defendants who stood trial for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. “This is really an attack on the idea of American as an open society. It”s not just an attack on a building.”
Indeed, Americans enjoy an unusually high level of freedom to conduct their day to day business without having to fear for their safety when compared to other nations. With yesterday”s carnage, however, Americans may find themselves looking over their shoulders more and more often.
“This is a supreme test not only to whether we will physically recover but how we will view ourselves as an open society,” Precht said. “There will certainly be calls from certain quarters that we are too open.”
Others offered a more blunt analysis.
“We”re going to feel vulnerable the way other nations have felt vulnerable,” Marwil said.
Americans, perhaps, have not felt such an acute sense of vulnerability since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which claimed the lives of 2,400 soldiers and civilians.
“This is certainly comparable to Pearl Harbor. Pearl Harbor happened over there, a long way away, but there was a terrific sense of violation,” Marwil said.
“I think that the anger may be more profound because we don”t know who the enemy is today.”
An almost definite consequence of yesterday”s violence will be heightened security and increased military preparedness.
“It”ll probably lead to an increase in security measures across the country,” said political science Prof. J. David Singer. “Most Americans don”t understand that we talk about rogue regime, but in many parts of the world, the U.S. is considered a rogue regime.”