"Faceless cowards." This was mini-President Bush in the first of his abysmal statements on the assault. Faceless maybe, but cowards? Were the Japanese aviators who surprised Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, cowards? I don't think so, and they at least had the hope of returning to their aircraft carriers. The onslaughts on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are being likened to Pearl Harbor, and the comparison is just. From the point of view of the assailants the attacks were near miracles of logistical calculation, timing, audacity in execution and devastation inflicted upon the targets. And the commando units captured four aircraft, armed only with penknives. Was there ever better proof of Napoleon's dictum that in war the moral is to the material as three is to one?

Beyond the installation of another national trauma, there may be further similarity to Pearl Harbor. The possibility of a Japanese attack in early December of 1941 was known to US Naval Intelligence. The day after the September 11 attack, a friend told me that a relative working at the US Army's Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey said that six weeks earlier the arsenal had been placed on top-security alert. In late August Osama bin Laden, a prime suspect, said in an interview with Abdel-Bari Atwan, the editor in chief of the London-based al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper, that he planned "very, very big attacks against American interests." On the evening of September 11, Senator John Kerry said he had recently been told by Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet that the agency had successfully pre-empted earlier attacks by bin Laden's people. Maybe the intelligence agencies didn't reckon with the possibility of assaults in rapid succession.

The lust for retaliation traditionally outstrips precision in identifying the actual assailant. The targets abroad will be all the usual suspects. The target at home will be the Bill of Rights. Less than a week ago the FBI raided InfoCom, the Texas-based web host for Muslim groups such as the Islamic Society of North America, the Islamic Association for Palestine and the Holy Land Foundation. Declan McCullagh, political reporter for Wired, has described how within hours of the blast FBI agents began showing up at Internet service providers demanding that they install the government's "Carnivore" e-mail tracking software on their systems.

The explosions were not an hour old before terror pundits like Anthony Cordesman, Wesley Clark, Robert Gates and Lawrence Eagleburger were saying that these attacks had been possible "because America is a democracy," adding that now some democratic perquisites might have to be abandoned. What might this mean? Increased domestic snooping by US law enforcement and intelligence agencies, ethnic profiling, another drive for a national ID card system.

That dark Tuesday did not offer a flattering exhibition of America's leaders. For most of the day the only Bush who looked composed and controlled was Laura, who happened to be waiting to testify on Capitol Hill. Her husband gave a timid and stilted initial reaction in Sarasota, Florida, then disappeared for an hour before resurfacing at an Air Force base near Shreveport, Louisiana, where he gave another flaccid address. He then ran to ground in a deep shelter in Nebraska, before someone finally had the wit to suggest that the best place for an American President at a time of national emergency is the Oval Office.

Absent national political leadership, the burden of rallying the nation fell as usual upon the TV anchors, most of whom seem to have resolved early on, commendably so, to lower the emotional temper and eschew racist incitement. One of the more ironic sights of Tuesday evening was Dan Rather talking about retaliation against bin Laden. It was Rather, wrapped in a burnoose, who voyaged to the Hindu Kush in the early 1980s to send back paeans to the mujahedeen being trained and supplied by the CIA in its largest-ever covert operation, which ushered onto the world stage such well-trained cadres as those now deployed against America.

Tuesday's eyewitness reports of the collapse of the two Trade Center buildings were not inspired, at least for those who have heard the famous eyewitness radio reportage of the crash of the Hindenburg zeppelin in Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937. Radio and TV reporters these days seem incapable of narrating an ongoing event with any sense of vivid language or dramatic emotive power.

The commentators were similarly incapable of explaining with any depth the likely context of the attacks. It was possible to watch the cream of the nation's political analysts and commentating classes, hour after hour, without ever hearing the word "Israel," unless in the context of a salutary teacher in how to deal with Muslims. One could watch endlessly without hearing any intimation that these attacks might be the consequence of the recent Israeli rampages in the occupied territories, which have included assassinations of Palestinian leaders and the slaughter of Palestinian civilians with the use of American arms and aircraft; that these attacks might also stem from the sanctions against Iraq, which have killed more than half a million children; that these attacks might in part be a response to US cruise missile destruction of the Sudanese factories that were falsely fingered by US intelligence as connected to bin Laden.

The possibility of a deep plunge in the world economy was barely dealt with in the initial commentary. Yet before the attacks the situation was extremely precarious, with the chance of catastrophic deflation as the 1990s bubble burst, and the stresses of world overcapacity and lack of purchasing power taking an ever greater toll. George Bush will have no trouble in raiding the famous lockbox, using Social Security trust funds to give more money to the Defense Department. That about sums it up. Three planes are successfully steered into three of America's most conspicuous buildings, and the US response will be to put more money into missile defense as a way of bolstering the economy.