Politics 17 September 2001 The day that nobody would take charge Terror in America - In the hours after the hijackings, the Bush administration seemed to de By Andrew Stephen Sign up for our weekly email * Perhaps it was the devilish cleverness of Tuesday's concerted attacks which so took America by surprise. A couple of miles across the river from me, palls of smoke rose all day from the wreckage left after American Airlines flight 77 sliced through the Pentagon; instead of the skies above being full of commercial planes and helicopters, the stillness was broken only by the occasional clattering military helicopter or F-16 thundering overhead. The birds, apparently surprised by unaccustomed freedom, were in full song; walk down leafy 31st Street and there, at its corner with M, you would see a US army armoured personnel carrier dramatically waiting for some unknown, unspecified enemy. America was at war - but it did not yet quite know why, or with whom. But by the end of that first day, America had lost its innocence; its inner insouciance that its lands were inviolate from foreign attack gone for ever. More than 30,000 died in one day's battle in the civil war, and 2,400 were killed in the Pearl Harbor bombing in 1941. But that was all in faraway Hawaii, and half a century before America became the world's unchallenged superpower. Throughout Tuesday, there was a slow, steady moan of stunned surprise that gradually metamorphosed into roars of outrage and anger. Twelve hours after flights UA175 and AA11 were steered into the two 110-story World Trade Center buildings in Manhattan, the nation began to realise that thousands of Americans lay dead beneath rubble in New York and Washington, and that a) they were impotent to do anything about it, and b) the weapons of living people used so diabolically might just as well have been missiles launched from overseas. Thus the impossible had happened. America had become like other countries Americans watched on the news. The 43rd president, facing his first real test after eight months in office, seemed like a rabbit caught in headlights, such was his fear and incomprehension over what had happened: some dusty cold war manual over what to do in a national emergency was brought out, and Bush was whisked on Air Force One (flanked by two close-escort F-15s and one F-16) from Sarasota, Florida (where he had been reading books to schoolchildren), to a US air force base in Shreveport, Louisiana, to an underground nuclear bunker command post at Offutt in Nebraska, before doing what he should have done immediately: head straight back to Washington to address the nation. Only then, after a day in which the Bush administration seemed to have deserted the country, did the people hear what they so desperately wanted to hear from their president: "Our military's powerful, and it's prepared." And the US, he said, "will make no distinction between the terrorists who commit these acts and those who harbour them". In the meantime, the television stations had moved the country up several gears of hysteria as they always do; their job is to create a sense of threat, but this time they needed no manufactured ingredients. Weeping parents were summoned to bring frightened children home from school; one usually sane mother I know announced that as Washington clearly faced imminent nuclear attack, she would drive her family to Rehoboth Beach on the eastern seashore. A DC radio station announced that it had just seen a passenger plane roaring out on an unauthorised take-off at Washington's Reagan National Airport. And still the birds kept singing, less than a mile from the White House where the US military had been ordered to go on full-scale "Delta" alert. What makes an attack of this kind so incomprehensible and unbearable to Americans is an unwavering belief that, in the words of Bush on Tuesday night, the country "was targeted because we're the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world". The US is a force only for good in the world; Americans simply can't make a connection between their country's Middle East policies, say, and ardent, even murderous, opposition to those policies in other parts of the world. Few here can grasp that suicide bombers genuinely believe in the rightness of a jihad, and are willing to martyr themselves to subvert America's burgeoning domination. Thus - until last Tuesday - America was a place dreamily set apart, a mighty fortress of strength unsullied by the grubby realities other countries in the rest of the world have to face. Geographically, it was protected on either side by two of the worlds' great oceans; militarily, it was unchallengeable. And yet all that went by the board when four fuel-laden passenger planes were hijacked on Tuesday, and no number of trillion-dollar Star Wars policies would have made the slightest difference. Mighty America was foiled by a small number of determined martyrs, careless even to leave flight-training manuals in Arabic behind in Boston. By Tuesday night the anger and the demand for bloodlust was palpable. A teenage boy visiting my home announced he was willing to go down to hunt and kill those behind the strikes; by Wednesday morning, polls showed that 80 per cent of the country was willing to go to war. But with whom? And at whom would those waiting $1m-a-time Cruise missiles be aimed? The country's media collectively decided that Osama Bin Laden was responsible, and Bush's declared willingness to pursue "those who harbour" the terrorists seemed to give the green light for US - and "allied" forces (we can bet our bottom dollar that Britain will play a symbolic role, magnified beyond all reality by the British media) - to pound the already wretchedly deprived people of Afghanistan. Inside Washington power circles, the finger-pointing, too, had already begun. The unimpressive performance of the Bush administration was the first subject of whispers that were only sotto voce in the circumstances; not a single representative of the government appeared live before the people on television until the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, materialised, more than nine hours after the first plane struck. Bush made it known at least three times that he had been in consultation with Dick Cheney - as though he was the man in charge - but Cheney never appeared. Only the secretary of state, Colin Powell, stranded in Latin America, looked sufficiently unfazed and in control of himself to take charge. It took Karen Hughes, perhaps Bush's closest adviser, to appear before the cameras in the middle of the afternoon; compared with a president apparently taking orders from his manual-reading secret service men, she looked positively presidential. By contrast, meanwhile, Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Governor George Pataki were constantly willing to put their heads above the parapets and before the cameras amid the rubble of New York. That initial stunned grief seemed almost palpably to deepen as the monstrousness of such deliberate violence sunk in, gradually giving way to anger and outrage; the next stage, and Bush's great test, will inevitably come when rampant aggression takes over. It will be days, if not weeks, before all the bodies are cleared and the funerals held - and, during that period, demands for Bush to take decisive action will only intensify. The problem for US intelligence is that it knows next to nothing about Osama Bin Laden's whereabouts; it once had the capacity to eavesdrop on his sophisticated network of communications, but has now totally lost that. In the intelligence community, this failure in itself is already becoming a subject of furious (again, sotte voce) finger-pointing. Bin Laden may well be being sheltered by the Taliban in Afghanistan; he equally well may not be. US intelligence still has little idea who Ramzi Yousef, the man convicted of attempting to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993 and now spending the rest of his life in a maximum-security prison in Colorado, actually is: he may be a disciple of Osama Bin Laden, but not even his nationality or real name are actually known despite lots of probing. Whether US intelligence is actually able to supply the Bush administration with the kind of information it now needs, therefore, is - at the very least - an open question. It will certainly assuage the mounting American bloodlust if Kabul and "suspected mountain hideaways" of Osama Bin Laden are now subjected to unprecedented aerial poundings from the US (and, yes, its "allies") - but without good and sure-footed intelligence, the result will only be to inflict more terrible agony on one of the world's poorest countries by its richest. The real test of George W Bush's character therefore now comes: will he take the easy path by ordering dramatic military action without the intelligence needed to plan or justify it, or will he be able to restrain himself in the face of increasingly insistent demands just to make fearsome retaliatory strikes against someone, somewhere? It has all been bad enough so far, but it could yet become even worse. Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage. Subscribe from just £1 per issue This article first appeared in the 17 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the open society?