Americans woke up as a different people today, transformed by the events of Tuesday, altered by a new and horrible knowledge.
They learned that for all their brains and money they are weaker than they imagined, and more vulnerable. They know something now that they never wanted to learn: Chaos, which all sane societies struggle to keep at bay, has rushed into their midst, proven its unthinkable power to kill, and left them feeling, at least for the moment, swamped and helpless. On a beautiful autumn day in New York, the havoc of war made its most spectacular appearance on the American mainland since the 1860s. Worse, the fact that this much evil could be visited upon the United States made it clear that even more terrible crimes might well be committed next time.
In future, when discussing Washington foreign policy and perhaps even the organization of American society, we may well speak of pre-September 11 and post-September 11. A new consciousness seems likely to develop from yesterday's terror, in the United States and elsewhere, though we can't yet know what shape it will take. The Americans and their friends have now glimpsed, in an oblique and baffling but freshly terrifying way, the dark shadow of our enemies.
The catastrophe that unfolded at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, echoing quickly across this continent and much of the world, was the work of patient experts with large sums of money. Only careful planning can produce this much chaos. As the events unfolded, like a bad movie that some madman had turned into reality, America discovered that its most hate-filled enemies are more clever and resourceful than anyone imagined. Assumptions have been shattered. A former New York police commissioner, Ray Kelly, remarked "We have relied for years on the relative lack of sophistication of terrorists." That was an innocent assumption, based on the belief that the industrially successful are superior in all ways. It's a form of innocence that no one can ever succumb to again.
Terrorism normally expresses the desperation of frustrated and rage-driven militants. The people behind yesterday's events probably meet that description, but clearly they are also much more than that. They proved it by redefining terrorism, moving it up to new levels of competence. Anyone who spent more than 10 minutes wondering how September 11 happened was forced to deal with distressing and ominous answers.
These terrorists knew how to make the most detailed plan, how to train and control a collection of crazed suicide pilots, how to infiltrate an airport and maybe even an airline or two. They knew about the psychological effect of timing, and figured out how to make it work for them. No one without extensive resources could co-ordinate, almost down to the minute, four hijackings of commercial aircraft, each of them California-bound and therefore heavily loaded with combustible fuel, calculated to create the most terrible explosion possible. The suicide crews who took over those planes required many helpers in the background.
And all of them, killers and helpers, required a talent for silence that terrorists have not always exhibited in the past.
These enemies are so ingenious that Prime Minister Tony Blair was right to speak yesterday of "the new evil in our world today." No one has ever before turned a passenger aircraft into a bomb. People have thought of it, both terrorists and moviemakers, but no one has done it -- and that alone would make September 11 an historic day. Putting that monstrous notion into practice required a psychopathic imagination of diabolical originality. And, like the invention of aircraft hijacking some four decades ago, it seems likely to be followed by crimes of emulation.
The fact that this extensive terrorist network was never penetrated by the FBI, the CIA, or the National Security Agency throws a dark shadow over the reputation of all those institutions. Americans, as they ponder this disaster, will look critically at their leadership. At a minimum, September 11 was a monumental failure of the counterterrorism system. The U.S. taxpayers, who spend billions a year on that system, without ever knowing where the money goes, have every right to feel indignant.
They may also reconsider some of the freedoms they take for granted. In recent years, many Americans and others across the West have argued that our society, with its omnipresent security cameras, metal detectors, and even phone taps, is over-regulated and over-scrutinized. But yesterday this elaborate apparatus was discovered to be inadequate. Is it possible that the vulnerable Western democracies do not have enough security cameras, enough airport checks, enough intelligence on those who move across borders? Post-September 11, it seems quite possible.
Something else changed. In the last few days, discussing the Second World War heroes in the miniseries Band of Brothers, critics have remarked that young people of today have no similar way of discovering their own capacity for courage. Those who spent painful hours yesterday watching thousands of firefighters, police officers and paramedics rushing toward the burning World Trade Center probably won't worry about that problem for a long time.