The nation reels
Terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and Pentagon challenge aspects of America's core identity
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Also overheard was a request for a flight path to Kennedy - but the controller, who was not controlling the plane himself, is unsure whether the pilot or hijacker made the request. Shortly afterward, as aircraft was making its turn toward New York City, the plane's transponder was turned off. With its transponder off, its altitude became a matter of guesswork for the controllers, although the plane was still visible on radar, he says.Skip to next paragraph
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Ominously, but not understood by controllers at the air-traffic-control facility at the time, he says, was a statement by the person in the cockpit to the pilot in which the individual said: "We have more planes, we have other planes."
Two F-15 jets also were reportedly scrambled from Otis Air Force Base, a response to the hijacking. But by that time, either just before or after the military planes were getting off the ground, the controllers heard a report that it had crashed into a building. They did not know it was apparently the World Trade Center.
One side of the Pentagon also collapsed in the attacks. Federal buildings throughout Washington were evacuated. All air traffic in the nation halted.
"Nothing of this magnitude has happened anywhere, ever," says Arthur Hulnick, a retired CIA agent who is now an associate professor of international relations at Boston University,
If nothing else, the nation is now awake to its internal security weaknesses.
A generation ago, the first spate of airliner hijackings created the security check-point system which is now a feature of daily air travel around the world. The question now is if some other layer of security will be inserted into the nation's nomal commerce.
For a long time, the nation's anti-terror policies have centered on protecting against what one expert calls a "fantasy attack" of chemical or biological warfare.
Tuesday's events show that nothing that extensive is needed to wreak havoc on an unprecedented scale.
"It should create an entirely new approach to how we deal with anti-terrorism in this country," says Peter Chalk, a security and terrorism expert at Rand Corp.
Nor did traditional deterrance - the knowledge the America's military might would surely be unleashed if pepetrators were identified - work in this case.
That means that a defense budget of hundreds of billions of dollars, thousands of nuclear warheads, and a military more powerful than the armed forces of the rest of the world combined, were not sufficient to protect the nation from more civilian casualties than it suffered in all the world wars of the twentieth century.
Nor were the nation's ocean barriers of any help against what one scholar calls "the contamination" of bitter world unrest.
"What's happening is extremely disconcerting ... this is a real dramatic perception shift for Americans," says Richard Immerman, director of Temple University's Center for the Study of Force and Diplomacy.
The United States began to come together as a nation during its early wars with Tripoli pirates, notes Kevin Starr, a historian in California. Two hundred years later, it finds itself again at war with the new millenium's pirate equivalents.
The country won't stop, but security will increase - with a corresponding effect on civil liberties. "America will never be the same," says Starr.
Reported by staff writers Abraham McLaughlin and Dante Chinni in Washington, Daniel B. Wood in Los Angeles, and Faye Bowers in Boston.