by Robert Herold
The bloodiest day in American history. That is how Tuesday will be recorded in the history books. Compare, if you will, the numbers to other such tragedies and disasters: America lost some 58,000 men and women in Vietnam in just under nine years. During the three-day battle at Gettysburg in July of 1863, casualties totaled some 45,000, both Union and Confederate. At Iwo Jima in February and March of 1945, U.S. Marines suffered around 6,000 casualties. The Galveston flood of 1900 killed 5,000.
By contrast, deaths from the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are estimated at anywhere from 10,000 to more than 20,000. We won't know for days, or maybe weeks.
The country will never be the same.
I remember, as so many Americans do, the news that President Kennedy had been shot. We were stunned, angered, terrified -- and we mourned. And America was never the same. Not as innocent, not as idealistic, more cynical, less committed -- we were never the same. Likewise, I believe, the shootings at Kent State brought the decade of the '60s to an end.
Nor will things be the same after September 11, 2001. This awful terrorist attack will, in years to come, be viewed as a watershed moment. And the story has only begun to unfold.
We are dealing here not with another Pearl Harbor, as so many are saying. Yes, both were sneak attacks; but there the similarity ends. The Japanese targeted our fleet and aircraft. These terrorists killed innocent civilians. The Japanese had in mind a very specific military objective. We don't know what these terrorists want, nor perhaps ever wlll. Japan was a nation state that took full responsibility for its actions. These terrorists are not claimed by any nation; indeed, nations that may well harbor these murderers are expressing sympathy for America's loss.
Terrorism typically takes the form of violent act, but not all violence is terrorism. Nor is terror always the result of a terrorist act.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was terrifying, but it was not an act of terrorism. The bombing of Berlin in World War II was terrifying, but it was not an act of terrorism. And we know from a study of allied bombing of Berlin that human beings are very resilient. They can tolerate amazing amounts of pain and suffering, so long as they can prepare for it. Cornelius Ryan tells us that throughout the American and British bombing -- Americans by day, British by night -- berlin was doing unexpectedly well right up until the Soviet 80-mile long artillery barrage started. Berliners could count on the destruction, and because they could count on when it would come, they simply worked around it. The symphony was playing, milk was being delivered, shops were open. But with the 80-mile long Soviet artillery barrage, society broke apart. Routine was destroyed. Faith in institutions vanished. It was everyone for him or herself.
And that is always the point of terrorism. Acts of violence, most often seemingly random, directed at particular people, organizations or governments by people, organizations or governments intent on breaking down major governmental and non-governmental institutions and processes, thus breaking down order, thus leading to chaos. So if we let that be the result, they have won.
Terrorism is political to the extent that it has as its purpose an intended political result; that is, the reordering of power and authority. If it does not have an intended political result, then such an act can be viewed as insanity or fanaticism.
One might conclude that these hijackers were fanatics, religious or otherwise. But those who masterminded this operation? No way. What we saw here was a carefully organized effort that required resources, training and discipline for it to succeed. In the end, as we watched that second plane crash into the tower in horror, we were once again reminded that Star Wars would not have stopped the attack, and that very conventional means of waging terror remain the most effective.
We also must have serious questions about the breakdown in our intelligence operations. And most certainly airport security must be looked at carefully. How could terrorists carrying knives get through security on flights that weren't even all that full? These and many other questions must be answered in the painful weeks ahead.
But the larger point is that with the collapse of the Soviet Union, world politics entered uncharted waters. Instead of two superpowers calling the shots, we now face a much more uncertain world, full of people who reject modernity while buying the weapons it makes so accessible.
Years ago, Eugene Staley argued that Germany in the late-1930s was a country that had armed itself to the teeth, but was still mired in its autocratic past. This brew, he argued, made it an easy target for a Hitler. When political maturity doesn't match technological capability, trouble is in the making. And this is just what we see happening today. Arms are accessible. Anyone can learn to fly a plane. Weapons are smaller and more deadly. The result? In the hands of the terrorist who may well be fighting against nothing more nor less than feelings of powerlessness caused by the ever encroaching modernity, we have disaster in the making. Or, in our case now, actual disaster.
President Bush now faces the most difficult challenge of his entire life. By ducking out of sight most of Day One, he didn't inspire all that much confidence. I, for one, would have liked to have seen him up in New York, walking through the dust and grit with Mayor Guiliani. But instead he was out in Omaha, safe and sound. Symbolism matters, especially now when we don't really know our enemy or his intentions. We hope he does better on Day Two and beyond.
One thing we do know is that terrorists hope to break apart trust in our institutions. It was not by some accident that these terrorists chose as their targets two symbols of America's power: commerce and the military. It falls to President Bush to remind us of the strength behind these symbols, and how terrorists can take down a building and murder thousands, but cannot destroy our institutions, nor our will. He needs to be visible, and he needs to be articulate. And he will be challenged. Americans doubted that Harry Truman was up to the task after Roosevelt died. Turned out he was, and for Bush right now, Truman would be a good role model.
We must respond, but here is the rub. How? Where? With what? Simply bombing for bombing's own sake -- to do something -- could only make things worse. The post-bipolar world -- or, perhaps, after Tuesday we should call it the new world disorder -- has been brought to our doorstep as none of us could have imagined. And to sort through all of this disaster and tragedy will require careful and measured response.
Certainly our defenses, security and intelligence need be improved. But the truth is we have not been all that effective at finding and bringing terrorists to bay. No one ever had to pay for the Marine barracks bombing. Even the culprits of the earlier World Trade Center bombing were relatively small fish. If we intend to up the ante, and if we intend to commit to making some country or group pay, it will not be easy. But America, as we have seen again and again, is at its best when threatened or in times of crisis.
The Pearl Harbor analogies will likely persist, but today's world has a lot more gray in it than did Roosevelt's on December 8, 1941. President Bush, and the nation as a whole, now face a much more difficult job than the U.S. was faced with 60 years ago, on the first of two days that will now live in infamy forever.