All that was finally behind them. And so she could say:
“We’ve survived the worst.”
And: “Things can only get better from here.”
That Monday — call it 9/10 — was the last day of a certain kind of American innocence.
“Eye on America investigates danger in the air — hot-dog military pilots in civilian airspace,” CBS News anchor Dan Rather said in his introduction that evening.
The top story of the night: Senate investigators crack down on scams involving dietary supplements.
The nation perceived itself to be at peace, unchallenged as the world’s only superpower. There were, to be sure, bad guys lurking here and there. There were random fanatics and Unabomber types. Pennsylvania Avenue had been closed in front of the White House to prevent truck bombs like the one that hit the federal building in Oklahoma City.
At the airport, travelers were asked: Did you pack your bags yourself? Has your bag been in your possession at all times?
X-ray machines at the security checkpoint were calibrated to detect a gun or large knife. A computer program flagged suspicious travelers, and their checked baggage would get extra screening. The bags wouldn’t be loaded onto the plane until the travelers had boarded the flight. The system assumed that no one would blow up a plane while flying on it.
There was a template for terror, a paradigm for how an attack would unfold. An airline hijacker would want to divert the plane to some unintended destination. Flight attendants were trained to discourage passengers from attempting heroic acts in a hijacking.
America was good at preparing for the imaginable.
Monday the 10th was the start of Acquisition and Logistics Excellence Week at the Pentagon. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld used the occasion to give a barnburner of a speech in which he declared war on the Pentagon itself — on its bureaucracy, its waste, its crusty procedures that had left the military “tangled in our anchor chain.”
Rumsfeld the reformer warned that new threats might be different from the old ones. They “arise from multiple sources, most of which are difficult to anticipate, and many of which are impossible even to know today.”
That day, five men from the Middle East, traveling in a pack, booked themselves into the Marriott Residence Inn in Herndon, about 20 miles west of the Pentagon. They had reservations to fly the next morning on American Airlines Flight 77, out of nearby Dulles International Airport.
They were young, clean-shaven, well dressed. They were hiding in plain sight, one of four teams taking positions on the East Coast. There were 19 of them in all; a 20th had been turned back weeks earlier in Orlando by a Customs official because he didn’t have a return ticket and couldn’t explain why he was coming into the country.