On the morning of September 11, 2001, Al Qaeda launched its four-plane air force against the United States. On board were its precision weapons: 19 suicidal hijackers. One of those planes, thanks to the resistance of its passengers, crashed in a Pennsylvania field. The other three hit their targets—the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, and the Pentagon in Washington, DC—with the kind of “precision” we now associate with the laser-guided weaponry of the US Air Force.
From its opening salvo, in other words, this conflict has been an air war. With its 75 percent success rate, Al Qaeda’s 9/11 mission was a historic triumph, accurately striking three out of what assumedly were its four chosen targets. (Though no one knows just where that plane in Pennsylvania was heading, undoubtedly it was either the Capitol or the White House to complete the taking out of the icons of American financial, military, and political power.) In the process, almost 3,000 people who had no idea they were in the bomb sights of an obscure movement on the other side of the planet were slaughtered.
It was a barbaric, if daring, plan and an atrocity of the first order. Almost 15 years later, such suicidal acts with similar “precision” weaponry (though without the air power component) continue to be unleashed across the Greater Middle East, Africa, and sometimes elsewhere, taking a terrible toll—from a soccer game in Iraq to a Kurdish wedding party in southeastern Turkey (where the “weapon” may have been a boy).
The effect of the September 11th attacks was stunning. Though the phrase would have no resonance or meaning (other than in military circles) until the US invasion of Iraq began a year and a half later, 9/11 qualifies as perhaps the most successful example of “shock and awe” imaginable. The attack was promptly encapsulated in screaming headlines as the “Pearl Harbor of the Twenty-First Century” or a “New Day of Infamy,” and the images of those towers crumbling in New York at what was almost instantly called “Ground Zero” (as if the city had experienced a nuclear strike) were replayed again and again to a stunned world. It was an experience that no one who lived through it was likely to forget.
In Washington, the vice president headed for a deep underground bunker; the secretary of defense, speaking to his aides at the damaged Pentagon, urged them to “Go Massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not” (the first hint of the coming decision to invade Iraq and take out Saddam Hussein); and the president, who was reading a children’s story, The Pet Goat, to a class of elementary school students in Sarasota, Florida, while the attacks took place, boarded Air Force One and promptly headed away from Washington. Soon enough, though, he would appear at Ground Zero, bullhorn in hand, and swear that “the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”