The Washington Times

Suppose, five years after September 11, 2001, you had to assign yourself a single adjective to describe how you feel and what you think in relation to the events of that day. I think I would pick “astonished.”

Not long after, I wrote that we were standing “between the opening salvo and the final volley in a war that is both necessary to win and entirely a matter of conjecture as to its course, duration, dimensions, and lethality.” But, of course we were all conjecturing feverishly. And most of the conjectures, I think, were along the very basic line of when we will get hit again, how hard, where.   In fact, how safe was Washington? Let us recall, in case we let unpleasant things slip our minds, that the weeks following September 11 were dominated by anthrax scares, real and imagined, which took the lives of a couple of our fellow citizens. The National Guard was out in force at downtown street corners.Reagan National Airport was closed and speculation was it might never reopen. For the first time in a long, long time, Washington had the feel of a wartime capital, not in the sense of the seat of power from which distant campaigns are directed, but in the more immediate sense of a place where security is an issue because the enemy might appear at any moment.     

The enemy, of course, was a shadowy and elusive terrorist nongovernmental organization chiefly distinguishable for the brutality of its methods, its ability to recruit people to commit suicide for the cause and the distinct lack of a return address stamped on its spectacular acts of violence. Our conjectures here, if I may, were of an entity that appeared out of the mists and wreaked colossal violence before vanishing into the mists again. Perfect invisibility and indiscriminate lethality: That’s what it looked like we were up against    

How vulnerable was the water supply? The food supply? Our computer networks? Our power grids? Nuclear plants? The public transportation system? Airline travel? Public places? Crowded sports events? The economy? This was a period of existential uncertainty of a sort that most of us really had no experience of    

Did you think about the question of whether to stay or go? I did. Let’s face it: The two most dangerous places to live in the United States of America came to light that day. If al Qaeda got hold of a single nuclear weapon, it would be 50-50 as to whether their top target choice would be New York City or Washington; if they got two, they wouldn’t have to pick. Now, admittedly, it would likely not be a large nuclear detonation, and our cities would not be as vulnerable to the firestorm damage that swept through the wood construction of Hiroshima. But these are the kind of things you tell yourself to cheer yourself up? When you could take up residence in
Altoona or any place even just a little farther down the target list?

I decided to stick around for the fight. But I did think it was far more likely than not that Washington would resemble Jerusalem during the second intifada: The odd explosion going off in a cafe or bus, occasional gunfire (you’ll recall the sniper attacks a year later), the facade of a building collapsing into rubble from time to time. It might become intolerable, but on the other hand, it might not, either because conditions might not deteriorate as badly or as quickly as one feared, or because, pace the Israelis, one might get used to it.     

In any event, if you had told me then that the anthrax scare would go away, that the triggermen to come would prove to be standard-issue American psychos, and that five years would go by without a follow-up attack on American soil, I and I think most everyone else would have thought you had your head stuck so far in the sand you could see Jimmy Carter.      So, that’s why I’m astonished. In the five years after the plane flew into the Pentagon and the one apparently bound for the White House crashed instead in a Pennsylvania field as a result of the counterterrorist strike organized by passengers, life in Washington became astonishingly normal again.     

But this is “normal” with a difference, or at least I hope so. It’s normal with a new awareness that the abnormal is a distinct possibility, and a very scary one at that. For example, it’s impossible to write a sentence about Washington becoming normal again without wondering what might happen between the time you write it and the time it appears in the newspaper. It’s not that our situation is precarious, it’s that we don’t know how precarious our situation is.     

It’s quite clear that our worst fears about this enemy, that combination of omnipotence and invisibility, were exaggerated. But it’s no less clear, I hope, that the gap between what we imagined and what we have experienced has nothing to do with the enemy’s will and everything to do with his capability — and our response to it.