America attacked: the day the world changed

America attacked: The day the world changed
After this unspeakable crime, will anything ever be the same?

SIX decades ago, a generation of startled Americans awoke to discover that their country was under attack. Pearl Harbour changed America, and therefore the world. Now the children and grandchildren of the Americans who went to war in 1941 have suffered their own day of infamy, one that is no less memorable. The appalling atrocities of September 11th — acts that must be seen as a declaration of war not just on America but on all civilised people — were crueller in conception and even more shocking than what happened in Hawaii. Thousands of innocents lie dead in the wreckage of the World Trade Centre; hundreds more seem likely to have perished at the Pentagon and in a crashed airliner in Pennsylvania. This week has changed America, and with it the world, once again.

In the immediate aftermath, the United States showed signs of what makes it great. In so many ways, and for understandable reasons, it had been unprepared to face such evil. Modern Americans have never learned to live with terrorism or with enemy action of any kind within their borders. They have not needed to. Neither the attack of 1993 on the World Trade Centre nor the bombing in Oklahoma in 1995 had changed that. Even the attack on Pearl Harbour was remote from the country’s heartland. At home, Americans felt safe, in a way they never will again: it made this week’s enormity all the more terrible. Despite everything, the country rallied. Across the United States, people have queued to give blood, to offer help. Airports and stockmarkets have been closed, but there is an urgent desire to return to normality, to carry on and not be cowed. In the country at large there is nothing of hysteria or panic. The mood is grief, purpose, unity, and anger under control. That is admirable.

In his first messages to the country George Bush spoke well, balancing reassurance and resolve. It did seem a mistake, perhaps a sign of the country’s innocence in these affairs, that Mr Bush should be hurried to safety in Nebraska in the first instance, rather than to the White House or to the ruins in Manhattan or Washington. At such times the president’s security ought not to be the overriding priority: exercising leadership, and being seen to do so, must come first. But if it is fair to call that a momentary mis-step, it was soon put right. The commander-in-chief was quickly seen to take command, and then acquitted himself with credit.

From horror to action
The testing, however, has barely begun. The immediate task of clearing the debris, recovering the dead and counting the full human cost will be daunting in the extreme. (In some ways, the first telephoto images, awesome though they were as spectacle, disguise the human toll of pain and distress.) And as that awful work proceeds, in circumstances hardly conducive to rational analysis, an adequate response to the atrocities must be framed. That is the greatest challenge of all. It must not be a task that the United States undertakes alone.

Even the simplest and most obvious prescriptions, to do with improving security at domestic airports, pose a dilemma. For years, visiting Europeans have been either alarmed or delighted, according to temperament, to discover that boarding an airliner in America is as easy as boarding a train back home: bags checked at the kerb, tickets issued at the flash of a driving licence, minimal or no inspection of cabin baggage. This, it now sadly emerges, was a fool’s paradise.