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Thoughts on Tuesday’s terrorist attacks

Where was the president? Why did this happen? Have we ever known anything like it?

ON TUESDAY, WHILE the nation reeled at the news that two planes had deliberately flown into each of the World Trade Center’s towers, and a third had drilled into the Pentagon, President George W. Bush was flown out of Florida — where he was promoting his education program — to an undisclosed location. As we now know, he spent most of the day at an underground nuclear-command post in Nebraska before returning to Washington, DC, around 7 p.m.

It was the first time in our nation’s history that the president had been sheltered in secret for fear of attack. The symbolism was powerful. Even Abraham Lincoln stayed in the White House as the Civil War raged on just miles away.

In the president’s absence, New York governor George Pataki and New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, who repeatedly went before TV cameras to address shell-shocked New Yorkers, were the only public officials whose words were broadcast to the nation. And Giuliani’s unscripted remark that the final death toll was likely to be " more than most of us could bear " was far more moving, compassionate, and empathetic than anything the president finally said during his 8:30 p.m. address from the Oval Office.

It was hard not to think of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein moving from bunker to bunker during the Gulf War as we endured Bush’s retreat into hiding. It was hard to imagine Bush’s father doing the same. It was even hard to imagine former president Bill Clinton — deemed a coward by those on the right who were disgusted by his draft-dodging antics and his anti–Vietnam War protesting — remaining incommunicado for so long during a national crisis.

But this is Bush’s style. He’s not a communicator. And this — even more than the manner in which he assumed office — is what makes him a weak president. We fear the days ahead. Both for what we will learn about Tuesday’s attack — including the final death toll — and for what Bush will do in response. His performance Tuesday does not inspire confidence.

How did this happen?

The Phoenix’s Seth Gitell reports in this issue (see " This Never Should Have Happened, " page 1) — and fast-developing information suggests — that this attack could have been prevented. Our nation’s terrorist policy, or lack thereof, is woefully inadequate to respond to the threats of today’s terrorists. Not that we haven’t had plenty of time to form a response. There was the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. There was the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center itself. There was the 1996 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The nation’s response to each of these events was horror. The political response has been to curb civil liberties.

In 1996, Congress passed the odious Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. As we pointed out 18 months ago when the country was consumed with fears of Y2K terrorist attacks (see " Fighting Ourselves, " Editorial, January 13, 2000, available at, that legislation allows authorities to deport immigrants living here legally who are merely suspected of terrorism, without providing evidence of their alleged crimes. It diminishes a defendant’s ability to appeal a state-court conviction to federal court on the grounds that constitutional protections were violated. It weakens the burden on the FBI to show an actual reason for wiretapping suspected terrorists. (See Phoenix publisher Stephen M. Mindich’s " Reflections. " )

As noted civil-liberties lawyer (and regular Phoenix contributor) Harvey Silverglate says: " The notion that a society gains protection from violation of civil liberties is insane and completely misleading and leads to a false state of security. "

Indeed. What good did the 1996 legislation do us on Tuesday? None whatsoever.

In the coming days, weeks, months, and even years, the temptation will be great to go further than the 1996 law. First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams warns: " I think that’s one of the real dangers here, that there will be a great temptation to respond to the terrorism of today by limiting speech tomorrow. " We must resist. Instead, we should be asking questions. Why is the president asking Congress to support a billion-dollar boondoggle called the missile-defense shield when terrorists can simply hijack a domestic airplane bloated with fuel and use it as a bomb? How can we trust the scandal-plagued Federal Bureau of Investigation, which was left flat-footed by Tuesday’s attacks, to conduct a competent investigation? Where are we going to get a comprehensive national policy on fighting terrorism that goes beyond rhetoric and politics?

Have we ever known anything like Tuesday?

There have been three attacks on American soil in the past 200 years. In 1814, the British burned down the White House. We rebuilt. In 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. We fought back. In 1996, domestic terrorists bombed a federal building. We brought at least two of the killers to justice. But none of these events compared to what unknown terrorists did Tuesday: an American landmark was reduced to twisted steel and concrete rubble; our symbol of military might was partially destroyed and set on fire; and hundreds, probably thousands, of Americans were killed.

And yet, even in the face of physical destruction and loss of life that are unprecedented in our country’s history, our response to the tragedy has been uniquely American. Thousands of volunteers lined up outside American Red Cross centers to donate blood. Around the country, strangers came together to talk about what had happened and to ask what they could do to help.

As the Phoenix’s Tamara Wieder asks in this issue (see " Love in the Ruins " ): " How many souls were lost? How many were found? "

Answering the first question will be hard. But the second is easy: more than we’ll ever know.

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Issue Date: September 13 - 20, 2001

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