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America's Day of Terror

Last Monday I woke up and as usual on Monday mornings I began to ponder what I might talk about this time.
I was, you might say, out of touch with what they now call "the real world" after two weeks' absorption in the fantasy world of the United States Open Tennis Championships.

But first, as the anchormen say, the weather. I like to know if it's cool enough for me to venture around the block.

So first then I turned on the weather channel and within 10 seconds I knew, all too well, what this talk would be about.

The man was pointing to a blurry circle, just north of Bermuda.

The circle had a bull's eye, and it had a name. Its name was Erin, the fifth tropical storm up from the Caribbean this season.

And it was said by the Hurricane Centre in Miami to be the most lethal in a quarter century. Its winds swirling at 120 miles an hour and - the point that hit me literally where I live - it was headed due north west and expected to make landfall on Wednesday at Suffolk County, the eastern end of Long Island.

Not since 1986 have we had to retire from a hurricane to the underground bunker my wife designed 20-some years ago.

I had breakfast and I thought about how and when I might take off somehow for the island - all the bridges were closed, some of the highways - in order to join my wife, and my daughter over from London.

And then I went back to the weather man who was mysteriously in a very cheery mood.

He pointed to the whirling circle again and then across the Atlantic water inland to Pennsylvania to show a vertical line of arrows pointing east.

They marked a cold front that the experts positively declared would move swiftly east and not merely block the oncoming hurricane but push it rudely due east to expire in mid-Atlantic.

And for once the experts were dead right. No more was heard about Erin and waking on Tuesday morning I was free to ponder again.

But not, you'll understand, for long.

I turned on a 24-hour news station and saw a kind of movie I detest of the towering inferno type. The roaring image of a monolith collapsing like a concertina in a vast plume of smoke.

And just as I pressed my thumb to switch to the "real world" I caught the familiar voice of a news man and was in the appalling real world of Tuesday 11 September 2001 - a date which to Americans will live in infamy along with the memories of Pearl Harbour - December 7, 1941 - and the grievous day of President Kennedy's assignation.

Before nightfall a famous old United States senator was to call it "the most tragic day in American history" and by that time, numb from the apocalyptic images, no historian was going to question the senator's definition by bringing up, say, the Civil War and a million dead.

But in our time - in my time certainly - the most startling, awful morning I can remember. Not because this was the most awful disaster ever but because, for the first time in the American experience a first act of war aroused, and television pulverised, our senses in a way we had never known.

Before 11 September most of the Americans who have seen and felt war on their own shores were nearly a century in the grave.

The first word I had from my wife, who was a hundred miles away in that so-nearly fateful Suffolk County, she said: "To think, all these years I've been saying we were the luckiest race alive, never to have seen war in our own country."

For myself, after the first mere announcement, I thought back to another September - by a fluke of memory, another 11 September. The date is confirmed by the books but my memory of the newspapers is sharper.

You must bear with me in this, the point will emerge. The first great battle of the first war was over - the Battle of the Marne - on 11 September and in the following days the newspapers hailed the German retreat as a triumph.

The sub-headings printed: "Heavy casualties on both sides".

And after that, for the next four years, that became a standard phrase.

From time to time we suggested the German casualties - 60,000 in one day. We didn't print numbers of our own.

When the Battle of the Somme was over Britain had lost a quarter of a million men. We never knew nor read that.

And many years later I wrote: "Is it conceivable that if the British could have been a population of viewers - of television viewers - instead of newspaper readers, is it conceivable they would have just shaken their heads and gone to the railway stations to wave their boys off on the troop trains?"

So this time the first thing I felt was: It's here, I'm seeing it and it's happening to us.

It's the first thing I think for people outside the United States to realise. It's the same feeling of bewilderment and secret fear - what next? - that Londoners felt after the first night of the Blitz in September 1940.

Well what next now?

I have reams and reams of notes made over four days and three nights but most of them recount heartbreaking scenes and awful facts that you yourself will have seen and heard much of.

As for the chronology of what happened and when, I ought to say that I'm talking on Friday afternoon European time the 14th and unless there is some new, large event this talk will, as the president likes to say, stand.

If there is one note, one small note, in this whole monstrous story that can be called heartening it is the act on Wednesday of the Nato ambassadors in Brussels.

For the first time in the history of the alliance the council voted to invoke Article 5 of the original treaty which says plainly something that has been quietly, often blandly, evaded.

"An armed attack against any of the allies in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all."

This was far and away the best news for the White House and the Pentagon in many a year, for it gave strength and credibility to the president's promise of punishment for the perpetrators.

The word "perpetrators" points at once to the mystery that has maddened everybody, the military especially, since Tuesday morning at 8.42, since the first microphone was pushed in front of an official of any kind.

The line I remember best was that of General Shwarzkopf, the commander of the alliance in the Gulf War.

"That's our main problem," he said, "how and where to respond to an enemy we can't or haven't identified."

While he was talking the FBI had organised around its counter-terrorist squad 4,000 agents and 2,000 others - scientists, forensic lawyers, weathermen, aviation experts, architects, engineers. They have been very busy all around the country and already, from an avalanche of data, have learned enough to alert the entire American air defence system and most recently to discover with careful speed Bin Laden as the prime suspect.

I think I ought to say that from now on it would be wise not to believe any of the welter of rumours unless they're confirmed or denied by the Attorney General - Mr Ashcroft - or the Pentagon and the White House.

Mr Ashcroft and his FBI chiefs have been remarkably patient with the media, most conspicuously with the younger television reporters - as with the super dense question of the year from a young girl reporter: "Sir, do you think this attack had been planned?"

It gave an FBI terrorist expert the chance to respond, dryly: "I should say it would be brilliant if it had been planned in less than one year."

Talking of patience before the interminably inquisitive and often very stupid press the mayor of New York city has stood out as a hero - a hero who apparently has to get along without sleep.

And as for the unseen heroes, I recall most vividly a doctor who'd been in combat in Vietnam. He emerged from this Hi?ronymus Bosch inferno in a blizzard of ash and rubble and said: "Never saw anything like this. This is hell."

And a young cameraman, a movie cameraman, a simple, late-20s I should guess, all-American boy with ropy hair and good looks, wiping the white, ghostly ash from his face and talking of the nurses among the hundred-odd doctors, the nurses standing staunching wounds, helping old survivors, looking on calmly hours at a time, saying: "Please, make way."

The boy said: "People are unbelievable."

What is more unbelievable than the enormous, hellish, wasteland of downtown New York is the stamina and courage of the firemen rescue workers - 350 lost by now.

The rescue men on their 16-hour shifts before they nap for a couple of hours and begin again, slogging through, so far, 100,000 tons of ash and rubble and now mud, pointing dogs into dark tunnels of wreckage, on and on, looking for a shape of life, or a corpse.

There is an old song - what we knew as a spiritual - which says: "Sometimes I'm up, sometimes I'm down, sometimes I'm almost to the ground."

Well today, tonight, America is down.

But between the deeds of the rescue men and the words of Nato, if they mean what they say, America is not almost to the ground.



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