Cover Story

Reload & Reset

"America Attacked" gives way to "America Strikes Back," as all-news channels find a new Ground Zero in the heart of Afghanistan

Issue: "Bush: 'We will not fail'," Oct. 20, 2001

in Washington-On Oct. 7, America reset its clocks. Ever since the World Trade Center disaster, time had been merely the space between "today" and "that day." Twenty-four hour anniversaries-with their attendant moments of silence-eventually gave way to a weekly count. Week One. Week Two. Week Three. Week Four. Time, it seemed, was based not on the sun, but on the moment of impact. Then, just as Week Five was about to begin, some clocks, at least, were set back to zero. With bombs and missiles finally raining down on Afghanistan, the only time that seemed to matter was a kind of military time. Sunday became Day One, and the revised countdown got underway. News channels rushed to put up spiffy new graphics: "America Strikes Back, Day Two." Or three. Or four. How many such days would there be? President Bush warned that the fight would be measured in years, so the rippling-flag graphics were sure to get old. Still, the new countdown seemed a fitting first step: If Americans couldn't yet recapture their old sense of security, they could at least take back the calendar. The nation's fragile sense of well-being was apparent from Day One of the military campaign. As President Bush took to the airwaves on Sunday to announce the bombing had begun in Afghanistan, life outside the White House windows appeared to be normal. Traffic moved along the streets, and two kites flitted occasionally through the clear blue sky. What most Americans couldn't see, however, were the pairs of Army helicopters circling low over Washington, rattling windows-and nerves-for hours on end. They didn't see the Coast Guard vessels plying the Potomac for the first time in history. And they didn't see Vice President Cheney, who had been moved to a secure location just in case the unthinkable happened. All across the country, police forces and National Guard units beefed up patrols at ballparks, airports, and public buildings. The Missouri state capitol in Jefferson City-some 7,500 miles from Osama bin Laden's presumed hiding place-was shut down to tourists on the day that B-2 bombers roared toward Afghanistan from Whiteman Air Force Base in tiny Knob Noster, Mo. Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, the former professional wrestler and Navy SEAL, said he would no longer publish his daily schedule out of fear for his personal safety. Gamblers in Las Vegas had to open their car trunks before valet parking their cars. And the Arkansas state fair banned backpacks on the fairgrounds. Just 24 hours after the bombing began, President Bush took time out of his military briefings to appear at a swearing-in ceremony for Tom Ridge, his new chief of Homeland Security. "I know that many Americans at this time have fears," the president acknowledged. "We've learned that America is not immune from attack. We've seen that evil is real." "The terrorists will not take away our way of life," Mr. Ridge vowed. But events belied his words: In a hastily arranged schedule change, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas administered the oath of office in place of the missing vice president. Both Mr. Ridge and Mr. Bush stressed that the civil liberties of American citizens would not become one of the casualties of the war on terrorism. But Congress was not so sure. Leaders of the House and Senate lined up publicly to support the bombing campaign overseas, but the administration's request for more police powers at home caused deep divisions behind closed doors on Capitol Hill. The anti-terrorism legislation-dubbed the USA Act in the Senate and the Patriot Act in the House-prompted the most fractious political debate since Sept. 11. Although the Senate Judiciary Committee gave the president much of what he asked for, an odd alliance of liberals and conservatives in the House basically wrote its own legislation that sharply limited the police powers requested by the administration. Negotiators worked feverishly through the weekend to produce a compromise version acceptable to both chambers, but agreement was slow in coming. As the USA Act prepared to go to the Senate floor for a vote on Oct. 9, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) insisted on adding four last-minute amendments. The ensuing debate could delay Senate consideration for up to a week. At issue in both chambers: How much domestic surveillance is acceptable in a free society, and how long should any new police powers last? The House insisted that emergency law-enforcement measures should end in 2003, while the Senate included no such "sunset" provision in its bill. While Congress dithered and debated, the Justice Department continued its roundup of foreigners under emergency powers granted by a temporary administrative order. By Oct. 8, the FBI had arrested or detained more than 600 suspects and material witnesses in the World Trade Center attacks-up 100 from just the week before. And they weren't done yet. Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that his department was seeking another 229 people believed to have played a role or to have information in the case. As the FBI's focus shifted from investigating the Sept. 11 attacks to preventing future attacks, agents were told to quickly arrest suspects they'd been tailing in search of more clues. Building a detailed case against Osama bin Laden was now less important than getting potential terrorists off the streets. But even with hundreds of suspected terrorist sympathizers behind bars, Americans continued to feel vulnerable within their own borders. An anthrax scare in Florida grabbed almost as many headlines as the military campaign overseas. The rare pulmonary disease, which has been diagnosed just 13 times in the United States during the entire 20th century, suddenly killed Robert Stevens, a photo editor at the Sun tabloid, just weeks after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. By Oct. 11 two co-workers were found with anthrax spores in their nasal passages, and the specter of biological terrorism loomed large. By Oct. 10, FBI tests indicated that the anthrax spores in Florida may have been manmade. Speculation swirled around a powdery white substance mailed weeks ago to the tabloid's offices. Reports of similar mailings closed a bank and a law office in Naples, Fla., as well as an IRS center in Covington, Ky. Possible anthrax symptoms were reported as far away as Texas, Wisconsin, and Virginia. Back in Boca Raton, the site of the confirmed anthrax death, nearly 1,000 people had been tested for the disease by mid-week. While they awaited the results, FBI agents in white hazmat suits descended on the Sun's headquarters, carting off evidence in carefully sealed plastic bags. Floridians, in particular, were gripped with fear. "I could probably drop a package of Sweet 'n Low and evacuate this building," said the emergency management director of one Florida county. Somewhere in Afghanistan, Mr. bin Laden was laughing. On Day One of the U.S. air strikes, a Qatari TV station had broadcast a rare public statement from the reclusive multimillionaire. "There is America, full of fear from its north to its south, from its west to its east. Thank God for that," he taunted. "I swear by God ... neither America nor the people who live in it will dream of security before we live it in Palestine, and not before all the infidel armies leave the land of Muhammad." Two days later, with the Afghan defenses in ruins and American ground troops poised to enter the country, a top al-Qaeda lieutenant continued the taunt. "America must know that the storm of airplanes will not stop, and there are thousands of young people who look forward to death like the Americans look forward to life," Mr. bin Laden's spokesman, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, said in a televised address to "the entire Islamic nation." "The American interests are everywhere all over the world. Every Muslim has to play his real and true role to uphold his religion and his nation in fighting, and jihad is a duty," he said. Calling the fight "a decisive battle between atheism and faith," Mr. Abu Ghaith warned that it would go on long after the immediate campaign had ended. "The Americans have opened a door that will never be closed," he said of the air raids on Afghanistan. "America must know that the battle will not leave its land until America leaves our land; until it stops supporting Israel; until it stops the blockade against Iraq." Despite jitters and uncertainties at home, the "new kind of war" overseas opened in a reassuringly old kind of way. Day One of Operation Enduring Freedom looked much like Day One of Operation Desert Storm. Under cover of darkness, 40 U.S. and British warplanes swept past the Taliban's anti-aircraft guns, pounding some three dozen airports, communications centers, and terrorist training camps. One of the B-52 bombers dropping 500-pound cluster bombs on Afghanistan was painted with a message from America: "NYPD, we remember." Speaking to the nation just minutes after the bombing began, President Bush had his own message to deliver. "Our military action is designed to clear the way for sustained, comprehensive, and relentless operations to drive [the terrorists] out and bring them to justice," he said from the White House Treaty Room. "We will not waver, we will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail." There were no apparent failures in the early days of the campaign, though the president tried to tamp down expectations of an easy victory. After two nights of relentless bombing, Afghanistan's tiny air force was decimated and its air defenses destroyed. By Day Three, American jets could fly unchallenged through Afghan airspace in broad daylight, and Day Five-the one-month anniversary of the Twin Towers' collapse-saw the heaviest bombing yet, sending waves of panicked refugees toward the Pakistani border. One of the hardest-hit Afghan cities was Kandahar, the nation's spiritual capital and home to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, whose compound was hit three times. Despite the repeated strikes, the Taliban insisted that both Mr. Omar and Mr. bin Laden had survived the war's opening days. Many women and children, they claimed, had not. In an appeal for sympathy from the Arab world, the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, said that scores of innocent civilians had been killed in the air war and a mosque had been struck. "In this freestyle game, Washington is aiming firstly to hunt the sitting Islamic government in Afghanistan and then every committed Muslim, in the name of terrorism," Mr. Zaeef charged. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld bristled at such charges. He insisted every target had been carefully selected for its military value to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. "We have approved every single target-and each one is a military target," he said. "There is no question but that any people who were around those targets were around those targets because they were part of the al-Qaeda and the Taliban military." By midweek, the only confirmed civilian deaths were four UN workers helping to clear landmines left over from a decade of Soviet occupation. "People need to distinguish between combatants and those innocent civilians who do not bear arms," said UN spokeswoman Stephanie Bunker in an appeal to the United States, but it was still unclear whether the workers had been killed by coalition bombs or Afghan anti-aircraft fire. Of greater concern to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was a letter delivered to the world body on Oct. 7 by U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte. As required by Article 51 of the UN charter, the letter certified that the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan were carried out in self-defense. And, Mr. Negroponte added, "We may find that our self-defense requires further action with respect to other organizations and other states." Although the campaign in Afghanistan was barely a day old, the Negroponte letter seemed to foreshadow a broader conflict in the future. "The one sentence which has caused some anxiety among the members, which I have also asked about, was a question that they may find it necessary to go after other organizations and other states," Mr. Annan told reporters. The most likely target of a future military campaign: Saddam Hussein's Iraq, long rumored to be a secret sponsor of al-Qaeda and Mr. bin Laden. Still, with attention focused for the moment on Afghanistan and its rogue Taliban regime, world opinion seemed solidly behind the U.S. air strikes. Scattered protests erupted in Israel's Palestinian territories, and hard-line Muslims rioted repeatedly across Pakistan, Afghanistan's southern neighbor. In Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, 500 students were tear-gassed on Oct. 10 as they attempted to storm the parliament building during an anti-U.S. protest. The rest of the Islamic world, however, seemed content to let the United States wield the sword against Mr. bin Laden and his Afghan hosts. Iran issued a tepid public statement condemning the American attacks, but the country's leaders privately assured Washington of their support. Saudi Arabia refused all public comment. And Turkey and Egypt, two moderate Muslim nations with fundamentalist minorities, stepped up security measures but reported no large-scale unrest. For the Bush administration, such relative quiet throughout the Middle East represented a diplomatic victory that rivaled the military successes in Afghanistan. Continued diplomatic victories were clearly a top priority: In an effort to convince Muslims that America was not engaged in a religious crusade, giant C-17 transport planes began dropping emergency food supplies into Afghanistan just hours after the first bombers had delivered their deadly payloads. By Oct. 10, U.S. planes had dropped some 75,000 bright yellow meal packages over southern parts of the country crowded with refugees from Kabul and other cities. In a land where up to 1.5 million people are in imminent danger of starvation, the aid packages floated down from the sky like plastic-wrapped manna. Inside each package was a single day's ration of beans, rice, flat bread, crackers, peanut butter, and raisins. Out of respect for Islam's strict dietary requirements, the meals included no animal or alcohol products. The military maintains a stockpile of some 2 million such meals earmarked for humanitarian relief, but Pentagon officials refused to say how many it would use in the Afghanistan campaign. Aid workers from both the United States and the UN said that regardless of the food drops, huge numbers of Afghan civilians would die if the war is not won quickly. After years of drought, Afghans have eaten seed stocks as food, leaving nothing to plant for future crops. Winter wheat could save hundreds of thousands of lives, but only if Western relief agencies can plant it before the onset of the harsh Afghan winter, which can bury the country in up to 30 feet of snow. By Day Four of the campaign, the skies over Kabul looked safe, but the ground was not yet ready for fighting, much less planting. So much to do-oust the Taliban, install a new government, wipe out al-Qaeda, plant crops, avoid a refugee crisis-and so little time. In Afghanistan as in America, all eyes were on the clock-and the calendar.

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