This 9/11 article appeared in the New Yorker on October 1, 2001.
The New Yorker
October 1, 2001
THE OPTIONS;After the morning of September 11th, the Presidency changed, too.
BYLINE: NICHOLAS LEMANN
SECTION: LETTER FROM WASHINGTON; Pg. 70
Midway through the first Presidential debate of the 2000 campaign-not even a year ago-Jim Lehrer, of PBS, asked, "Vice-President Gore, can you point to a decision, an action you have taken, that illustrates your ability to handle the unexpected, the crisis under fire, et cetera?" Al Gore was Al Gore: instantly, in full paragraphs, he provided a somewhat self-congratulatory example of his diplomatic role in the Kosovo conflict, where "our country had defeated the adversary on the battlefield without a single American life being lost."
Lehrer pivoted. "Governor Bush?"
"Well, I've been standing up to big Hollywood, big trial lawyers," the Republican Presidential nominee said. "What was the question? It was about emergencies, wasn't it?"
Lehrer said it was.
"You know, as governor, one of the things you have to deal with is catastrophe," Bush said. "I can remember the fires that swept Parker County, Texas. I remember the floods that swept our state. I remember going down to Del Rio, Texas. . . . That's the time when you're tested. Not only it's a time to test your mettle, it's a time to test your heart when you see people whose lives have been turned upside down. It broke my heart to go to the flood scene in Del Rio where a fellow and his family got completely uprooted. The only thing I knew how to do was to get aid as quickly as possible, which we did with state and federal help, and to put my arms around the man and his family and cry with them. But that's what governors do. Governors are oftentimes found on the front lines of catastrophic situations."
Two days after the terrorist attack on the United States, I took a train to Washington. I had a long-standing appointment with President Bush's senior counsellor, Karl Rove, to talk about politics. The Administration's theme on that Thursday was that the White House should operate as normally as possible, to provide reassurance, so Rove kept the appointment. It was a sunny day, though not quite as crystalline as the day of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The air had that still, overheated feeling that it gets when a weather front is about to come through. The train was nearly empty and exactly on time; the Washington subway system was running; there wasn't much traffic on the streets. People seemed quieter than usual and elaborately polite. The snatches of conversation that I overheard were about the attacks-stories of acquaintances who were victims or vows to cancel plans and stay safe at home instead.
There were surprisingly few extra police around the White House. The security routine was the old familiar one of getting buzzed inside a metal gate, presenting your driver's license, and then being sent through an airport-style metal detector. The only visible sign that it wasn't a usual day was the slightly larger allotment of television equipment on the lawn. Rove's assistant, Susan Ralston, led me to the small space where she works. On the wall was a print of Theodore Roosevelt in his Rough Rider outfit. Ralston silently handed me an American-flag lapel pin from a pile on her desk, and I put it on.
Rove, a fair-skinned man with wire-rimmed glasses, seemed amiable and unruffled. We sat at a table in front of his desk. When I said that it didn't seem like a good idea to stick to the original subject of the interview, he displayed no reaction, and said fine. At the moment of the attack, Rove had been with Bush at an elementary school in Sarasota, Florida, where the President was promoting an initiative called Putting Reading First. I asked Rove to give me an account of the day.
"Just before we got out of the motorcade, at Booker Elementary, the word came that there had been a plane crash in New York City," Rove said. "And then, as the President had literally just gotten out of the car and was shaking hands, Susan called to tell me that it was a plane that had crashed into the World Trade Center. And I told Andy Card"-the White House Chief of Staff-"who proceeded to tell the President.
"Literally, the President's shaking hands. The President then walks into a class where they're doing a reading drill. I then get a call from Susan saying that there is a second airplane that has been exploded. We scurry around trying to find a television set and we plug it in, in a room adjoining where the President's meeting with the reading people. It's the room where they have the secure phones that he travels with. Stu-Threes, they call them-black, they look like large, pregnant phones, and they allow you to have a secure conversation. We watched as they played the footage of the plane. And Andy goes in and tells the President while he's there in the classroom. The President finishes, comes in. Calls the Vice-President"-Cheney- "first. Tries to get the F.B.I. director on the phone. Then talks at greater length with the Vice-President, and then with the director. And then he turns and says, 'We're at war.'
"A statement was outlined. President changed some of it, added to it. Said, 'I'm gonna leave. Going back to Washington.' And between there and the time that we got to the airport, or maybe shortly after we got airborne-" He was about to begin explaining why Bush hadn't returned immediately to Washington, but he interrupted himself. "They sped the motorcade back pretty quick. These are not leisurely drives, and we were going much faster than normal."
Rove reached back to his desk, picked up a paper-clipped sheaf of white papers, covered with spidery handwriting, that had been torn from a legal pad, and began reading. "Nine-forty-five. We are aboard Air Force One. He asks about the security for his wife and daughters. Talking to the Vice-President. By now, the President has heard about the Pentagon. He gets a briefing on the other aircraft that are at question. He asks Cheney to call the congressional leadership and give them a briefing."
I asked Rove how many aircraft they were worried about. "Well, there were at least three aircraft missing," he said. "But, remember, this was the point when they started to order airplanes out of the air, so there were literally several thousand airplanes in the air. Little while later . . . " Rove had a Blackberry, a portable device for receiving E-mail, in front of him on the table. A message came in. Rove glanced at it and called out through the open door of his office, "Susan, I got another nutty one. I'm sending it to you."
He went back to his account: "They also made it clear they wanted to get us up quickly, and they wanted to get us to a high altitude, because there had been a specific threat made to Air Force One." What kind of threat? "A declaration that Air Force One was a target, and said in a way that they called it credible and gave it a high level of . . . yeah?" Ralston had stuck her head in the door. Rove motioned her to come in and kept talking. "So they wanted to get us up quickly. They also wanted to get us up with fighter air cover." Ralston held up a yellow Post-it note in such a way that Rove could see what was written on it but I couldn't. "I'll go out," he said, and excused himself for a minute.
I glanced around Rove's office while he was gone. I saw three antique prints of Abraham Lincoln, another of Theodore Roosevelt, and, behind the desk, an old map of the short-lived Republic of Texas. On the bookshelf, sitting in a row, were three pristine copies of "The Prayer of Jabez," the best-selling book of advice.
Rove returned and picked up where he had left off: "They wanted to get us north, and they wanted to get us under fighter cover. I don't know at what point the fighters actually joined us. At this point, there are two hundred some-odd planes still in the air. They've got planes out over the Atlantic that they think are not accounted for."
I asked him what he was thinking.
"Well, I'm thinking, as the President said, we're at war," Rove said. "We were able to watch this on television, because we'd fly over areas where we could pick up a signal. There's a TV in the conference room in Air Force One. So we're seeing it. And we're hearing it. And of course the President's being briefed by the security people. He's on the phone all the time. He's talking to Rumsfeld"-Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense. "He's talking to the Vice-President. Condi"-Condoleezza Rice, the national-security adviser- "is briefing him.
"There's lots of fog-of-war rumors. There's a plane down near Washington, approaching from the south. The Pennsylvania plane. The plane in Kentucky. A Korean Air Lines plane forced down in the Black Forest. A hijacked plane down on the ground in Amsterdam. There's lots of this stuff. A car bomb at the State Department."
Rove looked at his notes. "Ten-thirty-two. Somewhere between ten-twenty and ten-thirty-two is when the specific threat comes in that leads him to believe that Air Force One is in danger. They're deeply concerned about it. The President gets a report, ten-thirty-seven, that Laura has now been safely secured, and so are the two girls. The President jokingly asks about Barney"-the family dog. "Andy responds that he's nipping at the heels of Osama bin Laden now.
"There's discussion about his going to Washington. The Vice-President's opposed to his going to Washington. The President says, 'What about Camp David?' The Vice-President's against his going to Camp David." Rove looked at the notes again. "The President continues to talk to the Vice-President. He talks to the Vice-President again.
"Twelve-oh-five. We land at Barksdale"-Barksdale Air Force Base, in northern Louisiana. "They brought us to Barksdale, one, to downsize the package-that is, to reduce the number of people on the plane by off-loading all the nonessential personnel. And then also to get us fully fuelled up. And also they landed us there because nobody expects us to be there. And that's the moment where, if it wasn't real for you before, it's pretty damn real, because you get off the plane and there's no carpet, there's no van, there's no receiving party-there are guys in combat uniforms and flak jackets, carrying fully automatic weapons, and Humvees with machine guns. And they take us into the conference area there, and the President's met by the commander of the base, the commander of the Eighth Air Force, and they're all wearing sidearms.
"The President gets on a secure line with the Vice-President. President says, 'I think I need to come back.' They say, 'We think it's still unstable. We still have a number of planes in the air and unaccounted for. We still have the planes over the Atlantic.' President says, 'I want to meet with the National Security Council.' They settle on a time. They say, 'Look, we can get you to Offutt' "-Offutt Air Force Base, in Nebraska, the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command-" 'in, like, an hour and twenty minutes. We've got secure facilities there to update you, and you can communicate with the entire national-security team in a secure environment. It's closer than Washington, and Washington's still unsteady.' He's not very happy.
"Twelve-fifty-five, he calls Schumer"-Senator Charles Schumer, of New York. "Schumer's called, and the President returns his call. 'Sad day for America. Government's functioning. We'll come together.' Talks to Rumsfeld. That's where it emerged that it was an American Airlines plane. Before that, there was some question of whether it was a smaller plane, or whether it was a helicopter. One-oh-five, we get some intel from StratCom about a high-speed object that is headed toward the ranch."
As Rove was speaking, I was thinking that the Presidential party not only did not have better information than was available to those of us who were watching television at that moment but had worse information-or, anyway, more misinformation. He went on, "Onefifteen, we depart, get back to the airplane, using an armored Humvee, camouflaged, and I think it had explosive armor on the outside. By one-twenty, we're on the plane, getting airborne.
"Talking with Cheney. Confirming, let's have a four-o'clock N.S.C. meeting. Bush says, 'I assure you, I'd like to be coming home now. Tonight would be great.' Thanks him for the job he's doing.
"About one-twenty-five, he turns to Andy, and says, 'I want to go home. I want to go back to Washington now. As soon as possible.' And there's some scattered pushback from the security people. They're down to a handful of planes unaccounted for, but there's still twelve planes. Even an hour and twenty minutes later, when we've gotten to Omaha, they're still talking about two or three planes over the Atlantic and two or three others unaccounted for.
"But, anyway, he says, at that point, 'I don't want some tinhorn terrorist keeping the President of the United States out of Washington. People want to see their President, and they want to see him now. We're going to Washington as soon as we can sit down in the office and do this meeting. But we're going home.' I think he talked earlier in the day with Giuliani and Pataki"-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Governor George Pataki-"but he talks to them together, about two-twenty, two-twenty-five.
"Two-fifty-eight, he has another exchange with the security people about going to Washington. We're on the ground shortly after that, and by three-ten we're at the Offutt command center. About four-fifteen, he's finished the briefing. The briefing is all in the secure part of it, so the rest of us are shepherded into a conference room across the hallway from the secure area. They're briefing in a room that we can see in. They have a huge two- or three-story wall with displays on it, and we're behind the glass there, watching the information being flashed up on the screen." There were more fog-of-war rumors. "They've accounted for all four planes, but they've got another, I think, three or four or five planes still outstanding. At four-fifteen, he leaves it, and moments later we're airborne. And, again, the runways are lined with people with guns every couple of hundred yards. As we pulled onto the flight line, there's a giant gasoline truck, white, filled with aviation fuel. At this point, I'm sort of semi-paranoid. I see this truck crossing like a T in front of us, and just about that point the radio crackles. They have an announcement that all traffic in the flight line is to stop immediately. Truck keeps driving on, to get out of our way. I could see it: 'PRESIDENTIAL AIDE SEARED IN BURNING AVIATION FUEL.' So we're airborne by four-thirty, and he's on the phone with the First Lady."
As Rove was finishing the story of the journey around the country in Air Force One, Susan Ralston stuck her head through the door again and said, "Five minutes." I asked Rove what he thought the hijackers had been trying to accomplish.
"I think what they're trying to do is to cower our society," he said. "I think they're attempting to undermine its openness and its freedom and its ability to dissent, to be different. I think they're attempting to force America back into itself. To make America tepid and afraid of the world. To destroy our confidence and our society."
Were they trying to engender some specific policy change? "I think more important than any specific policy is to undermine the fundamentals of the American system. To undermine the fundamentals of the American equation is the greatest goal of all. I mean, if their object is to change a policy there are conventional ways of getting a change in policy. Some of them are accepted, some of them aren't. The unaccepted version would be to bribe people. But there are plenty of accepted ways of bringing pressure to change a specific point of policy. But that's not my sense here. My sense is that these are people who fundamentally hate our society, hate the values we stand for, and are uncomfortable with the American presence in the world, and would like nothing better than to turn us into something that we're not: a society that lacks vitality and confidence, that's inward-looking and isolationist, not involved in the world, and that is not sure of itself, and that is not confident to express values that we think have a universal nature, like the value of freedom and the value of diversity and the value of freedom of religion and freedom of expression and a market economy. All of these things-on a certain level, they deeply resent it, or hate it. And they want to see a change in it."
My time was up. I asked Rove what, if we were at war, was our objective? When would we know that we had won?
"That's an interesting question," he said, standing up from the table. "I really am late. We'll set up another time."
What was most striking about that first week is how unfamiliar the situation was (including, obviously, to the President), and how real the possibility of disarray. One always hears people on the Sunday-morning talk shows wondering, portentously, whether this or that administration can get this or that situation under control. This time, that was a real question.
Shortly after I left, security personnel "expanded the perimeter" around the White House, so that you could no longer walk right up to the northwest gate, as I had, without having to show identification. Instead, for a day, when you got a couple of blocks away you'd encounter a camouflage-painted Humvee parked across the street, and camouflage-clad Army Rangers waving you away.
I took the Metro across town, to the Capitol, and as I walked through the grounds a picture kept running in my mind of an airplane ramming into the beautiful white dome and breaking it off. As at the White House, when I got to the Capitol it was quiet and empty-the only time I've ever seen the building with no tour groups of senior citizens or class trips standing in line outside. I walked into one of the Senate office buildings to the north of the Capitol, through light security, and took the subway that runs the short distance to the Capitol itself. In the seat in front of me was Senator John Warner, of Virginia, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee and a sponsor of the resolution authorizing the country to use force, and in the seat behind was Senator Joseph Biden, of Delaware, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Each senator had beside him an aide in the characteristic pose of urgently whispering in the boss's ear while clutching a sheaf of papers. Neither senator took any notice of me; it's common, or has been until now, for senators to ride in the open subway car with perfect strangers.
We all rode up an escalator and headed down a hallway into the Capitol-but then everybody was rushing out, because the building was being evacuated. One woman was shouting, "Shit! Shit!" but everybody else was silently obedient. For the next forty-five minutes, half of the United States Senate, which had been debating a resolution condemning discrimination against Arab-Americans in the aftermath of the attack, stood on the lawn between the Capitol and the Supreme Court. The senators formed into joke-sharing cliques, like high-school kids at a fire drill. Although it was quite late in the afternoon by now, it was becoming uncomfortably hot and airless as the front drew near. Shirts were wet. Presently, a lieutenant from the U.S. Capitol Police set up a wooden lectern and announced that there had been a report of a suspicious package in the building, but bomb-sniffing dogs had checked it out and now everybody could go back inside. The senators crossed the street and trooped up the steps of the Capitol.
The following morning, there was a gathering of the hawks-a press conference at the American Enterprise Institute, one of the two biggest conservative think tanks in town. (The Heritage Foundation is the other.) As I walked in, Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker, was talking. It was a little jarring to encounter someone who had been a familiar daily presence in public life and then gone away; I'd mentally filed him away as a retired leader, a cable commentator, but here he was, the same as ever, rhetorically red-hot: "Sudan will cease to house terrorists or we will replace the government of Sudan. The Taliban will cease to house terrorists or we will replace the Taliban. . . . We're the most powerful nation in the world. If we want to eliminate the regime of Saddam Hussein, we have the capacity to eliminate it."
Gingrich is still adept at speaking, off the top of his head, in a hyper-vivid, sloganeering style. He went on, "The next time, it will be gas or it will be a germ agent or it will be a nuclear weapon. . . . We must plan for a coercive, not a consensual, campaign. . . . There are only two teams on the planet for this war. There's the team that represents civilization, and there's the team that represents terrorism. Just tell us which. There are no neutrals."
On another morning, I had a brief telephone conversation with a senior official inside the White House decision-making apparatus. This person described the number of people who are deciding what the United States will do as "extremely small-very small. I don't know everything, only what I need to know." I asked him whether he had seen the recent, fairly scrupulous movie version of Robert Kennedy's memoir of the Cuban missile crisis, "Thirteen Days." He said he hadn't, but he knew the book well. This was a different situation, he said, because it was going to last a lot longer than thirteen days-there were no deadlines, even self-imposed ones. On the day of the attack, this official had been in the White House, and had believed that it was an imminent target of two of the hijacked planes. Now he thought that the plane that hit the Pentagon had gone there because it had found the White House "too difficult to target visually": on the approach from the west, it sits behind the much taller and bulkier Old Executive Office Building. Nonetheless, at one point there was an attempt to get Vice-President Cheney to evacuate to another location. The official said, "He thought for a minute and said, 'I don't want to do that.' " So he stayed.
If Karl Rove is right that the goal of the terrorists was to fundamentally undermine American self-confidence, they seem to have failed. In nearly every other respect, their operation was a success. They achieved complete surprise. They generated confusion at the highest level of the American government. They shut down a main national transportation system, and in the process imperilled one of the nation's big industries. They closed American financial markets for longer than they have ever been closed, and then set off the largest point drop in the Dow ever. They destroyed a portion of our biggest city. And we were lucky. We have only the sketchiest sense of what they planned that didn't come off, and of how things might have turned out far worse. For a week after the attack, for example, a vital part of the financial infrastructure, the settling of transactions, was not functioning normally. The clearing of personal checks-about a hundred billion dollars a day-usually requires that the checks be flown around the country, and they couldn't be. One of the two banks that settle most of the government bond trades in America, the Bank of New York, couldn't process the trades for three days. (The much mocked overpreparation for a Year 2000 computer crash came in very handy, because all the major financial institutions and the Federal Reserve had built or upgraded off-site backup systems that could function after their main systems became unusable.)
"The United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts," Bush declared when he got to the Barksdale base. The Administration no doubt had a time of it wondering what they could do that would live up to the rhetoric. Virtually everybody who knows something about the Arab world says that a quick, ill-considered strike that missed its intended target or killed a lot of innocent people and not many guilty ones, like the United States' previous attempt to attack Osama bin Laden, in 1998, would make the problem worse. The Tomahawk cruise missiles that were sent after bin Laden then missed him, but they destroyed four mosques in Afghanistan. "This is what they know about the U.S. over there," Milton Bearden, a former C.I.A. station chief in Pakistan (and supposedly the model for the Robert De Niro character in "Meet the Parents"), who has become a familiar presence on television these last couple of weeks, told me. "The Internet works, and Tomahawk missiles work. So we reserved four missiles for mosques. The mullahs at Friday-night prayers could really do something with that." The Administration is evidently aware of this argument, because it pointedly did not respond to the attack with an instant resort to military force.
The United States can't go after terrorist networks on its own; the active cooperation of dozens of governments will be needed, because American troops can't just appear in a place like Cairo and chase down bin Laden's allies there. Getting these governments to help is going to be difficult. In the Arab world, just about every head of state is terrified of the anti-American Islamic militants among his citizens. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt-presumably a man who would like to see Al Qaeda, bin Laden's terrorist network, brought down, since its close Egyptian ally, the Islamic Group, once tried to assassinate him-has so far not full-throatedly condemned the attack on the United States. Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, supposedly No. 1 on bin Laden's "enemies" list, would not agree to visit the United States even before the attack, despite a personal plea from President Bush's father, and has flown members of the royal family out of Washington. King Abdullah II of Jordan did agree to visit-he was in the air on September 11th, and turned around and went home. President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan took power two years ago, in a coup, and his cooperation with the United States thus far has brought him protests in the streets. The President of Uzbekistan, another country bordering Afghanistan which has been friendly to the United States, was almost killed by Islamic terrorists two and a half years ago. Even President Jacques Chirac of France, who did loyally come to Washington and New York the week after the attack, declined to sign on publicly to President Bush's use of the word "war."
Anti-terrorism has not been the most finely honed specialty within the American foreign-policy establishment. The mastermind of the Clinton Administration's attack on bin Laden in 1998, Richard Clarke, a hard-charging type who walks through the corridors of government with a purposeful stride and a glint in his eye, stayed on as the National Security Council's terrorism expert in the Bush Administration. Military experts seem to be almost universally skeptical of the idea of trying to kill bin Laden through an airborne assault, or by sending troops into Afghanistan-especially after the heavy snows begin to fall, in late November or early December. The Taliban government could produce him, but it is obviously not going to do so unless it succumbs to the severest sorts of threat, such as sealing off its borders and heavily arming its opposition, the Northern Alliance. The Pakistani government is publicly an ally, but it has a weak hold on power (in a country that has nuclear weapons), and one can't be sure that it won't make a separate peace with the Taliban. The Pakistani intelligence service, the I.S.I., is in the embarrassing position of having (with heavy American support) trained many of the leaders of the Taliban back when they were mujahideen fighting the Soviet Union.
The riskiest response, but one that would get around the problems of balky regional allies and the appearance of inactivity, would be to declare war of a more conventional kind, against a government that can be shown to have links with the terrorists who staged the events of September 11th. Afghanistan is the obvious candidate-maybe an unavoidable one if the Taliban finally will not cooperate. Last Wednesday, CNN reported, on the basis of leaks from Administration sources, that Muhammad Atta, who flew one of the planes into the World Trade Center, had met with an Iraqi intelligence officer. The same day, the Post devoted its front page to that story-the words "SADDAM TERROR LINK" nearly filled the page-and the Internet's greatest hit that day, at least in certain circles in Washington, was a story on Janes.com, the in-the-know intelligence site, saying that Israeli military intelligence suspects that Iraq was the state sponsor of the attacks on the United States, and that the Imad Mughniyeh, head of the special overseas operations for Hezbollah, based in Lebanon, and Al Qaeda were both involved.
More information like that could be used to justify a declaration of war against Iraq, on the ground that, as Bush has said repeatedly, governments that harbor terrorists will not be tolerated. The member of the Administration who has made the most hawkish public statements since the attack, Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, has for ten years been a leading proponent of unseating Saddam Hussein. At a press conference two days after the attack, Wolfowitz called for "ending states who sponsor terrorism"-the most militant formulation any official has used publicly. The following evening, in an interview with Margaret Warner on PBS's "NewsHour," Wolfowitz said, "The President is the one who has ultimately got to decide what are the military options that make sense. I can tell you that at the Defense Department both his senior civilian advisers and senior military advisers are really thinking-I hate to use the Pentagon jargon-but thinking outside the box, recognizing that the assumptions that went into military plans on September 10th just don't apply anymore, and that one has to think about, if necessary, larger forces. One has to think about accepting casualties. One has to think about sustained campaigns. One has to think about broad possibilities. And we're trying to present that full range of possibilities to the President. He is the one, and I must say I've been very impressed in the discussions I've heard him in just in the last few days, at his grasp of the breadth of the effort that's required."
A few days later, Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, was asked what he thought of Wolfowitz's comments. "We're after ending terrorism," Powell said. "And, if there are states and regimes, nations, that support terrorism, we hope to persuade them that it is in their interests to stop doing that. But I think ending terrorism is where I would like to leave it, and let Mr. Wolfowitz speak for himself." On Thursday, the Times carried a story by two of its reporters, Patrick E. Tyler and Elaine Sciolino, that Powell and Wolfowitz were arguing over whether to attack Iraq, with Vice-President Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis Libby, who is a former student of Wolfowitz's at Yale, lined up on Wolfowitz's side. A sign that Powell's camp had the upper hand came when Cheney, in his one public appearance, on "Meet the Press," answered a question about whether Iraq was involved in the attack with a flat "No." Cheney is usually the hawks' friend at court; Wolfowitz worked for him when he was the Secretary of Defense, and, of course, Libby works for him now. If Cheney isn't on their side, they're in trouble; the leak about Atta and the Iraqi agent may have been a late attempt to change the momentum inside the Administration.
What Presidents do all day, when they're not out in public, is choose among options presented to them by subordinates. President Bush, who ran on promises to "restore honor and dignity" and to "change the tone" in Washington, is now making choices, based on surmise and incomplete information, of a difficulty and consequence that he never imagined. One can guess roughly what the options are: Option One would be to go after bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban if they don't cooperate. Option Two would be to add Hezbollah, Hamas, and other international terrorist networks to the American target list-a more ambitious project, and one that would have a harder time attracting allies. Option Three would be to make war on Iraq and possibly other states, on the argument that they are the sponsors of terrorism. What began as a rhetorical flourish by Bush on the day of the attack developed into a kind of tic in the following days-he bookended his warnings to the terrorists with the phrase "make no mistake." It shouldn't be surprising if that idea is constantly on his mind.
Before I returned to Washington last week, I went to Rosh Hashanah services at my local synagogue, which was under police guard-but it is every year. Jewish services usually end with a recitation of the Mourner's Kaddish, a prayer in Aramaic that one says when grieving the loss of a parent. The much noted central peculiarity of the mourner's Kaddish is that it does not mention death, let alone the specific person who died. Instead, it praises God in particularly generous terms. The opening line is "Magnified and sanctified be God's great name in the world which He has created according to His will." This declaration has a particular context: God, it is well understood, is a law-bringer and a society-maker, not a dispenser of personal favors in the name of holiness. Grief comes under the purview of an elaborate, and presumably divine, system; the underlying assumption is that even the most searing loss can be assuaged, slowly, by the assurance that a fundamentally good moral structure will live on after any one person within it is gone.
What I found most unsettling about the attack and its aftermath, beyond the thousands of lives lost, was the feeling of being subject to people whose principle is divinely sanctioned violent revenge-not legal justice and respect for life. I wondered whether, as the first shock wore off, Bush and the government could find their way to placing paramount importance on, and establishing the primacy of-to quote from the Kaddish's last line-"harmony in the universe."
Washington last week was jarringly quiet: public places fairly empty, the Humvees in the streets gone. I dropped by the daily White House press briefing, conducted by Ari Fleischer, on Wednesday afternoon, and there were empty seats in the small auditorium. The questions came slowly, then worked into a flurry, then died down again. A little while later, the congressional leadership came to the White House for a meeting, emerged onto the driveway, and rather stagily announced that they had asked Bush to speak to a joint session of Congress the following evening, and that he had agreed. Obviously, the idea had occurred to the White House before the congressional leadership suggested it, but the small deception was O.K. Washington is very deeply an organization city, and it needs these rituals; a wartime address to a joint session of Congress is the ultimate unscheduled ceremony, and you could feel the comforting effect of the expectation of it.
On Thursday, the day of the speech, I went to see Bush's media adviser from outside the government, Mark McKinnon, who had just come from a planning meeting at the White House. "This is sort of like everybody woke up and they're on Mars," he said. "There's no precedent for this. We've never been attacked on our soil. There's no road map. It's a day-to-day operation. That'll be true for a month." How do you satisfy the public's anger over the attack, when there isn't any way to get back at the attackers immediately? "We live in an instant-gratification society in America," McKinnon said. "I think that's going to be one of the challenges. This is not a situation, I believe, in which you can provide instant gratification. But I think it's going to modulate. The instantretaliation moment is going to diminish. People will consider the consequences of actions. There's a human instinct to just strike back. That's the emotional instinct. Then the intellectual instinct begins to take over: Who am I hitting, and how likely are we to be hit back by them?"
I asked him whether Bush would continue to speak publicly off the cuff every day, as he had been doing, in colloquial, emotional language. "I think it will be ratcheted back some," McKinnon said. "The President assured people, the last couple of weeks, that the situation's under control. He'll be out in public, but only two or three times a week. It's going to be Cheney and Powell and Rumsfeld. We'll see a lot of Colin Powell."
Will Washington return to its usual state of incessant political rivalry? McKinnon smiled. "Two weeks."
Will the country forget about the attack? "No. I don't think so," he said. "This is a stain on the national psyche that won't be easily erased."
Later, I stopped by the office of Senator John McCain, of Arizona. Since the attack, McCain had been living a dual life, half as a national totem, half as a legislator. He had flown back to town after being the introductory guest at the reopening of the "Tonight show." The day after Bush's speech, he planned to go to New York so that he could tour the site of the World Trade Center attack with Mayor Giuliani and Governor Pataki, and the following day he would fly to California to speak at the funeral of one of the crash victims. He had spent the day at hearings of the Senate Commerce Committee, on airline safety and on providing emergency financial assistance to the airlines. He was annoyed by the hearings: Congress is an incredibly reactive body, and his colleagues were already back to what he considered petty concerns, such as lobbying for the reopening of Reagan National airport. He was suspicious of the airlines, too, for wanting so much money so quickly. "What's it going to be like six months from now?" he complained. "How long will this solidarity hold? People up here will degenerate into partisanship and pork-barrelling. Watch that forty-billion-dollar bill we just passed, and see where the last fifteen billion goes. I think you may see some of it go to Alaska and West Virginia, those hard-hit states"-where the top two members of the Senate Appropriations Committee come from.
McCain had ducked out of the hearings early and gone to the Pentagon, which he hadn't seen at first hand since the plane hit it. "It was a horrendous explosion," he said. "The engine penetrated all the way to B Ring. There are big black scars on the Pentagon itself. It got hit on a seam-it looks like somebody sliced it right open. And now the workers have to take the debris and put it into a big container in the parking lot and sort through it, looking for body parts. Even though you expect something, it still hits you when you see it."
I'd been at the hearings that had so annoyed McCain. He was right-it was the usual show, with everybody advancing parochial interests in a ritualized atmosphere. Having wondered myself whether the luxury of pettiness would ever be available to us again, I didn't mind.
McCain went off to dinner, and I went to the House of Representatives' chamber to wait for Bush's speech. The House gallery filled up early, because security was so tight that people were afraid of not being able to get into the building. At twilight, the Capitol dome, glowing as it caught the last of the sun, stood out against a dark background of thunderclouds. There were security forces everywhere-mostly Capitol police in white shirts, but also military personnel in green fatigues. Helicopters and, out of visual range, F-16 and F-15 fighter jets were overhead. In the long approach to the building-streets had been shut down for blocks-one had one's credentials checked every hundred yards or so, and I passed through two metal detectors and had my reporter's notebook taken into storage.
The press gallery is what, at a baseball stadium, would be a front-row mezzanine seat behind home plate: looking out, that is, toward the chamber. For an hour, government officials wandered into the chamber; they appeared almost jolly, although it was hard to believe that the thought that the Capitol at that moment was the most tempting terrorist target possible had failed to cross anyone's mind. They hugged, kissed, chatted, and guffawed. This is what happens when you put six hundred of the world's leading extroverts into one room, I thought.
Eight-forty. Dennis Hastert, the House Speaker, entered, to a standing ovation. Washington has an uncritical respect for people who get things done; the big, bulky Hastert, a former high-school wrestling coach, was temporarily a hero for moving all the emergency legislation through quickly, so there was in his reception an element of what a batter would get coming up after hitting a home run.
Eight-forty-five. Somebody announced, grandly, "The President Pro Tempore of the Senate!" White-haired Senator Robert Byrd, of West Virginia, walked in, leading his fellow-senators in procession. Then the membership of an escort committee was announced, and all its members rose and left. The announcer went on, "The dean of the diplomatic corps!" A small older gentleman glided down the center aisle. "The Supreme Court!" Five of the nine justices, in their black robes.
Eight-fifty-eight. Everyone looked up toward a spot in the gallery that would correspond to above third base-the President's box. A door opened, and Laura Bush walked in with Giuliani, Pataki, Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Tom Ridge, the governor of Pennsylvania. The crowd stood and cheered.
Nine o'clock. "Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States!" More cheers. The main door opened, the escort committee returned, and behind it was Bush-without his usual grin, but by no means so sombre that he didn't devote a few minutes, on the way to the lectern, to getting in his share of shoulder grabs and soulful handclasps and whispered intimacies. He wasn't visibly nervous, as he had been in his televised speech on the night of the attacks.
I found all the Washington hokum comforting-it felt like life seeping back into the government. Bush's speech was noticeably less belligerent than many of his remarks over the past nine days. He departed only once for more than a word or two from the prepared text, and it was in the direction of defiant swagger: changing "And we will not allow it" to "And you know what? We're not gonna allow it." Other than that, he stuck strictly to the text. He is not and never will be a master orator; the notion that people in their fifties and sixties can dramatically "grow" and "change" in a period of a few days-a staple of political commentary-just isn't true. The crowd was attentive and respectful but not spellbound. People-Giuliani; Ridge, appointed to run the new Office of Homeland Defense; Lisa Beamer, the widow of one of the men on Flight 93 who fought the hijackers-not ideas, got the biggest applause, but then Washington thinks in terms of people, not ideas.
To me, the speech indicated that Bush was coming down somewhere between Option One and Option Two. The diagnostic section was devoted mostly to blaming bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban, which I took as an indication that the Administration must have pretty solid evidence of that to present to other governments. He promised to try to wipe out Al Qaeda and to attack the Taliban directly if it doesn't cooperate in capturing bin Laden. He appeared to accept Option Two also, but only with a single flourishing sentence-"It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated"-rather than a detailed pledge. And he left Option Three just barely open, by saying that "we will pursue"-note the verb carefully; it wasn't "fight"-"nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism." Bush did not criticize any national government by name except Afghanistan's, or any terrorist group except Al Qaeda and two of its close allies. So it looked as if the State Department were winning the internal argument.
Gazing down from the gallery into the House chamber during Bush's speech, I found myself focussing on two small dramas. Every time there was an applause line, the Supreme Court Justices would conduct an instant, mute conference, through glances: Should they stand and clap? Justice Sandra Day O'Connor seemed to be the signal-caller here, and the criterion seemed to be whether Bush had said something indicating a policy choice that might one day come before the Court or made a point of general agreement. At "We will come together to strengthen our intelligence capacities," the Court sat; at "The hour is coming when America will act," it stood. Every time the Justices got, or gave themselves, the green light to stand and clap, Justice Clarence Thomas clapped more heartily than the others.
And then I watched the diplomatic corps-row upon row of ambassadors, from all over the world. During the sections of the speech where Bush was condemning bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban, a few of the foreign diplomats did not stand at all. A few more stood stiffly, with their arms at their sides. None of them applauded enthusiastically.
It took thirty minutes to get out of the Capitol, because the building's myriad exits had been reduced to one or two, through which the whole crowd had to be funnelled. The grounds were floodlit, and there were buses and fire trucks everywhere. But soon the police opened the streets, and ordinary cars began driving by. An hour later, the clouds broke and a heavy rain came.