Americans watched in shock this morning as a war was launched against them. It has been 60 years since the U.S. homeland sustained an aggression of this magnitude. The country responded then without panic but with an iron determination to defend itself and punish the aggressors. The response today must be as decisive—to the mass murderers who planned and carried out the attack, and to any nation or nations that gave them shelter and encouragement.
So far there is more unknown than known about the events that began this morning with an aircraft flying into the World Trade Center in Manhattan and continued with an attack on the Pentagon itself. We know that the loss of life must be enormous—possibly greater than at Pearl Harbor 60 years ago. Everyone’s heart goes out to the families of the victims, to the injured and to the many people frantic to get word from relatives not yet heard from. It seems reasonable to assume that an attack of this complexity required long and sophisticated planning; part of the shock Americans feel today is that the government and its intelligence agencies appeared to have no inkling that anything like this was imminent. But we do not know who was responsible; and we can be reasonably sure that, as has already taken place this morning, false rumors and halftruths will swirl through the initial reporting.
The United States has tended to treat recent attacks against civilian targets at home or against military and official targets overseas primarily as law enforcement matters. In the case of the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the bombing by domestic terrorists of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995 and the destruction of U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, U.S. officials managed to bring to justice some of those responsible. In other cases—the bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996, or of the USS Cole in Yemen last year—no one has paid a price for killing American servicemen and women. The impulse to pinpoint responsibility and to act only when certainty is achieved is admirable. In this case, too, the United States must resist the temptation to lash out prematurely; it may take some days to sort this out. But if this assault originated overseas it is not a question for law enforcement. It is an act of war, and must be treated as such.
On Dec. 7, 1941, Americans knew who was attacking them. They knew too that the aggression was targeted at the armed forces, not, as today, against civilians in airplanes and offices. Yet what President Franklin D. Roosevelt said then, when he called Dec. 7 “a date which will live in infamy,” applies today just as well: “Always will we remember the character of the onslaught against us. No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory. I believe I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again.”