Editor’s note: This article was originally published September 11, 2001.
The silence was scariest of all. On the streets, in the lobbies of emptying office buildings, in the Metro -- we were all heading somewhere, to find someone to hug, to find something safe, and we just didn’t have anything to say. It was that far out of our experience.
We have lived a very safe and coddled life in this country. And now we are like the rest of the world.
In McPherson Square, three blocks from the White House, a dozen people gathered around a man with a boom box just as details of the attack on the Pentagon were being broadcast. Among them were Assaf and Liat Ben-Melech, tourists from Israel, and everyone wanted to know if this was what it is like to live in Jerusalem.
Yes, Assaf Ben-Melech said, and he assured us that “when you hear the bombs every day, you don’t panic anymore.” But you never stop being scared. “When people keep killing, it fills you with desperation.” His wife had been telling him that in America, everything is bigger. “Now I see, even the terrorist attacks are the biggest. It’s a terrible, terrible thing.”
On the streets, no one wanted this to be the most powerful city in the world. Not today. On Vermont Avenue NW, a man passed his cell phone around to three strangers who had to find their children and hear their voices. A tire squealed on L Street and a clot of pedestrians jumped as one.
Downtown in late morning was a jumble of wailing sirens, rush-hour traffic, and the silence of determination and fear. On K Street, a construction worker loudly joked that “I better go into the drug store and stack up on food,” and immediately two total strangers shushed him.
The first instincts were to get home, to get safe, and only then to wonder what it all meant.
I called my friend Daniel Benjamin, who was director for transnational threats at the National Security Council in the Clinton administration. He was at home on Capitol Hill, and just as we started talking, we heard a big boom from somewhere outside. Or we thought we did. We had already gotten to the point where we would believe almost anything, which is exactly what terrorism is all about.
Benjamin said this day’s events had all the markings of an assault by the forces of Osama bin Laden, a Saudi dissident who is wanted by U.S. authorities on charges of masterminding the bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998.
“They have been seeking to create a sort of Tet offensive phenomenon of lots of attacks at one time to show they can coordinate attacks better than any other terrorist operation before,” Benjamin said. “They’ve done that today. This is a very impressive performance.”
It seemed this morning that our government, our country were totally clueless, but Benjamin said that’s precisely the impression that terrorists want to make, and it’s not entirely the case.
“Terrorism is a bizarre game in which when the bad guys score one, it looks like they’re winning the game,” he said. “Attacks have been foiled in recent years. And there have been arrests that stopped incipient attacks.”
But not this time. “This will stress the resources of the United States as far as anything has in our history,” Benjamin said.
And yet on the streets of Washington, there was no panic, no shouting, no crying. There were quick, efficient cell phone conversations about whether the kids would be safer at home or at school. There were strangers offering to drive strangers home, or at least in that direction. A woman whose boyfriend was at that moment in a plane somewhere over the East Coast was besieged with offers of the latest news about hijacked planes.
People shared phones, radios, cars, stories. We didn’t know what to do except to keep on doing. We just didn’t know anything but to be afraid, and that’s the purpose and the mission of terrorism.
After the man from Israel told me that in his home town, there are big booms every day, I asked him if he ever got used to it emotionally. He shook his head. “We came here to calm down,” he said. “Now I guess we feel kind of homesick.”