It might not amount to anything. Planes had crashed into buildings before, usually totalling the plane but creating relatively little damage to the building. Still, with the bits and pieces of information that had been coming in over the past several months, including hints of an attack – well, any such event had to be taken seriously.
More messages soon removed all doubt. Two other planes had been highjacked. One of them had hit the second tower. Both towers were on fire. Clouds of black smoke were pouring from the impact sites.
The President would not be making a classroom appearance that day. Within 20 minutes, he was on Air Force One, headed back to Washington. His Secret Service team had argued against it. Too dangerous, they insisted. The President would have none of it. President Roosevelt hadn’t gone into hiding when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he reminded his protectors. President Kennedy didn’t flee when faced with the Cuban missile crisis. His place was in Washington.
The nation needed to hear from its leader. This was not a time for speech-writers. The President spoke from the heart. His words would be remembered through the coming months and years:
“My Fellow Americans, this is a crime, not just against our own great nation but against all nations. It is a crime against humanity itself.”
Over the next seemingly endless hours, the President and his Secretary of State were on the phone, speaking to leaders around the world, conveying a simple message: we're all in this together; an attack on one is an attack on all. It was perhaps a simplistic message, but nevertheless true. The response was overwhelmingly positive.
At the same time, the Director of the CIA was also on the phone, recruiting the assistance of Interpol, of MI5 in the UK, of the Mossad in Israel, all the many intelligence services in nations around the world. The response there also was unvaryingly positive. Information poured in, to be scrutinized, analyzed, added to other bits of information, digested, consolidated, reduced from bits of data to intelligence, what could reasonably be said to be known based on the evidence. It soon became clear that the mastermind was Osama bin Laden, the deceptively soft-eyed fanatic, black sheep of a respected Saudi Arabian family.
A consensus was reached on the amount of reward to be offered for information leading to the arrest of bin Laden and his agents. The amount must be reasonable, offered in the individual nation’s own currency. The reward offer would be broadcast around the world, in newspaper advertisements, radio and television broadcasts, e-mail messages, posted flyers. There would be no place for bin Laden to hide.
It became clear that bin Laden had for some time taken refuge in Afghanistan, abetted and protected by the Taliban. The Pentagon proposed a military action. The President demurred. Any military action on the ground would entail unacceptable casualties to U.S. troops, and any action restricted to bombing from the air would be too diffuse to guarantee actually hitting bin Laden’s headquarters. And both types of actions would result in the deaths and injuries of innocent civilians.
The President was adamant: The deaths of thousands of ordinary Afghans would in no way compensate for the deaths of 9/11. This was the Twenty-first Century, far removed from the doctrine of “an eye for an eye.”
When found, bin Laden would be brought to justice in a properly constituted international court of law, similar to the Nuremberg trials. He would have legal representation. Evidence would be presented. This was the way civilized nations dealt with criminals. No matter how vicious the crime, no matter how heartless the criminal, he would be accorded every legal right throughout the proceedings. And Bin Laden would be found. He and his associates would be brought to justice.
As the responsibilities and demands of the day wound down, the President’s thoughts turned to the thousands of people who had died and to their loved ones, still hopeful or already in mourning. The overwhelming sadness of it all brought tears to his eyes. It seemed trite to offer some hope that these victims of violence had not died in vain.
And yet. And yet.