Act of War

Once in a great while, an event occurs that is so horrific that it sears its way into the national psyche. It happened on Dec. 7, 1941, with the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor, a surprise attack that left the U.S. Pacific fleet in flames and Americans' sense of invulnerability shaken.

Now, nearly 60 years later, the nation has been rocked by a new day of infamy. On what began as a crisp and sunny Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists launched a devastatingly well-coordinated assault on the very symbols of American economic and military might--the twin towers of Manhattan's World Trade Center and the Pentagon complex.

The carnage was unimaginable, as the list of casualties soared far beyond the handful of losses the U.S. suffered in full-scale military operations such as the Persian Gulf war and the Bosnian intervention. This was 21st century conflict, a hellish, home-brewed variety--and suddenly, it was unfolding on American soil.

Close your eyes and try to make the images go away--the jagged holes ripped in the twin towers by two hijacked airliners, desperate office workers jumping to their deaths, the buildings' eventual cascading collapse, scenes of panic in the streets, jumpy TV footage of injured Pentagon officers. You can't banish the horror.

Chances are, the generation of Americans who come after us won't be able to, either. This terrorist operation, a sophisticated strike that U.S. intelligence sources suspect may be the work of Islamic radicals, was too great a blow to the nation's sense of security. "This is a lot harder to process than Pearl Harbor," says Columbia University historian Alan Brinkley. "It will shake the way Americans think about their place in the world. We have thought of ourselves as protected. Now that we have experienced this kind of terrorism, it will be hard to restore that sense of safety."

America's wartime response certainly underscores the point. In the aftermath of the attacks, troop convoys rolled through the streets of Washington. Military jets crisscrossed the skies above Manhattan. U.S. airports and financial markets were ordered temporarily closed, and government buildings were evacuated. Skyscrapers in commercial centers were also shuttered, and the country seemed to be under siege, its citizens uncomprehending in the face of the invisible threat. A grim President Bush, appearing at a national security meeting on Sept. 12, bluntly labeled the attacks "acts of war."

But by whom? And how, when shadowy extremist cells are involved, can a U.S. military more accustomed to deploying sophisticated Stealth bombers and cruise missiles against its adversaries respond? As BusinessWeek went to press on Sept. 12, answers were sketchy, the questions many: How could a U.S. intelligence apparatus that had long braced for violence by agents of renegade Islamic leader Osama bin Laden and other Middle Eastern radicals have let such a complex attack unfold? After the hijackings of four U.S. commercial planes--two American Airlines jets and a pair of United Airlines jetliners--can any traveler assume it's safe to fly again? Even if the attackers failed to crash a hijacked airliner into the White House, how could they have managed to hit the nearby Pentagon? Are corporate skyscrapers things of architectural beauty--or particularly vulnerable targets? And how much of Americans' cherished sense of individual freedom and unfettered mobility will now be sacrificed to the imperatives of internal security?

Beyond these immediate concerns, larger issues loom. Even if the terrorists' bloody rampage ends without a second wave of assaults--which is by no means clear--Terror Tuesday will exact a psychic and economic toll on the nation. Before the attacks, the economy was already teetering on the brink of recession and consumer confidence was flagging. Now, the prospect of a guerrilla war raging inside U.S. borders threatens a short-term bout of economic paralysis as Americans halt much of their normal activity to absorb the enormity of the tragedy. If confidence weakens further, anemic retail spending could send the U.S.--and with it the global economy--into a deeper decline and heighten the sense of unraveling.

In that sense, the audacious suicide raid constitutes a sharp new blow to an American economy that has already had to weather a yearlong manufacturing slump, a tech meltdown, a tumbling Dow Jones Industrial average, and a spike in energy prices that now stands to be repeated. If the terrorist strikes and expected sharp U.S. military retaliation create more instability in the seething Middle East and the Terrorist Crescent that spans Pakistan and Afghanistan, a temporary oil-price jump could stretch into a protracted problem--not just for the U.S. but for an Asia and Europe that are struggling with slowdowns of their own.

RENEWED SCRUTINY. That's why the crisis looms as a double-barreled challenge for the fledgling Bush Administration. Even before the billowing smoke of terrorist attacks transformed the landscape of Washington and Manhattan into scenes reminiscent of Jerusalem or Sarajevo, the White House's management of the economy was facing increasing skepticism, with bipartisan talk rising in Congress that a "second stimulus package" might be needed to fend off a deep slump. Now, the President's foreign-policy stewardship faces a severe challenge as well. In brief remarks on Sept. 12, Bush sought to radiate resolve. Calling the battle against terrorism "a monumental struggle of good vs. evil," the President vowed: "Make no mistake...we will win."

Although Americans traditionally rally behind their political leaders and put partisan squabbles aside in times of emergency, it won't be long before both Bush's leadership and communications skills come in for renewed scrutiny. For starters, critics will home in on the apparent collapse of U.S. human intelligence and raise questions about the vigilance of the FBI and the new antiterrorism task force headed by Vice-President Dick Cheney.

The U.S. debate on defense and national-security strategy will profoundly shift as well, transformed from a spat over "lockboxes" and funding levels into a deeper debate about priorities. Although Bush and congressional hawks will gamely insist that the terrorist strike underscores the need for an antimissile shield to defend against rogue states, Democrats will counter that the $8 billion Bush seeks as a first installment on his Star Wars antimissile system would be better spent on shoring up domestic security and military readiness.

While Democrats might achieve a short-term tactical victory by delaying some of Bush's missile-defense money, liberals' dreams of a wholesale assault on big-ticket Pentagon weapons will also go up in smoke. At a time when the nation is under attack, few lawmakers will be emboldened to push massive program cuts.

Fortunately for a President still very much in on-the-job-training mode, Bush's bench is deepest on the defense and national security side. Veep Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Secretary of State Colin Powell are a veteran crew of savvy hands. Although the group doesn't always mesh smoothly, its performance in the Administration's initial foreign-policy crisis--the capture of a straying U.S. reconnaissance plane by China--was both subtle and successful.

CAN HE STEP UP? But ultimately, the response to the nation's bloodiest encounter with domestic terrorism is too important for Bush to delegate to subordinates. Thus, a taciturn politician who has been notably shy about appearing before the national TV cameras will now be forced to constantly provide the American people with reassurance and vital information.

This role--part healer, part authority figure--was something Bill Clinton managed with aplomb in the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City federal-building bombing. Whether a Dubya who appears uncomfortable in his cameo TV turns can rise to the occasion remains to be seen.

Bush's desire to be seen as a kind of flinty, "Silent Cal" Coolidge figure may not survive the public's hunger for leadership--and answers--in the wake of Tuesday's tragedy. And the changes won't end there. Bush's entire world view may also have to be altered in the face of new realities. Up to now, the President has practiced a kind of Reaganesque unilateralism that led him to a "damn the opposition" view in advancing U.S. global interests. In addition, the Texan passed up few opportunities to declare that other nations' internal woes were not U.S. strategic concerns.

It is precisely this inward-looking fixation that led Bush to conclude that the Mideast was a sinkhole to be skirted. Indeed, attempts at U.S.-mediated peace accords and global conclaves of all stripes were ridiculed by the Administration as Clintonesque exercises in fanciful idealism. But at 8:45 a.m. on Sept. 11--the time the first commandeered airliner crashed into the World Trade Center--Bush's desire for international detachment may have ended for good. The need for a coordinated global response to countries that fund or harbor terrorists "will hasten Bush's reengagement with the world after a campaign in which he pledged to step back from U.S. interventionism," says Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas political scientist.

Just as he learned that a quick, surgical U.S. withdrawal from the Balkans was not realistic, Bush is about to discover that a U.S. pullback from vigorous mediation of the Arab-Israeli conflict is a stance he can ill afford. Now, the Mideast's problems are American problems. Now, the casualty lists are no longer distant tallies of Israeli teenagers killed by Hamas suicide bombers or rock-throwing Palestinian youths cut down by Israeli gunfire. The war has come home.

It is war with no face and no name, a struggle that is not marked by the traditional massing of troops or the sound of distant trumpets. But make no mistake: It's a war just the same, and the potential casualties are many. Among them: America's post-cold-war innocence, George W. Bush's not-so-grand illusions, and the health of the global economy.

By Lee Walczak, with Alexandra Starr and Richard S. Dunham in Washington, and bureau reports

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
    LEARN MORE