Today's Papers

Plane Evil

The papers are consumed with yesterday’s mass terrorism strike against the United States, in which two U.S. airliners commandeered by suicide hijackers toppled both main towers of the World Trade Center (with another nearby high-rise collapsing later as well) and a third was crashed into the Pentagon. A fourth hijacked airliner crashed into a field in Pennsylvania, its intended target still a mystery. Although full death and injury figures were not available as the papers went to press, the coverage refers to fears of thousands dead, which was the assessment President Bush used in his nationally televised address last night. There are many comparative references to Pearl Harbor. The New York Times’ William Safire says the totals will be the most war casualties suffered on U.S. soil since Antietam. President Bush referred in his speech to the perpetrators as “evil” but didn’t get more specific. However, the papers are filled with suggestions that the murders trace back to Osama Bin Laden. And they quote one comment of the president’s that suggests the U.S. has just adopted a tougher standard of response to terrorism than it has operated under previously: “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.” The papers suggest that the day’s confidence-shattering events will also have grave economic consequences. The Washington Post has a bank economist saying that as a result of the attack, the U.S. economy will go into recession. And the Wall Street Journal has him saying that “a full-blown global recession is highly likely.”

The fronts feature still-unbelievable photos of the second airliner bearing down on, and/or a beat later, exploding into the WTC. The Los Angeles Times’ afternoon extra edition and USA Today each give over three-quarters of their fronts to the shots. The NYT banner headline is “U.S. ATTACKED” and USAT’s is “ACT OF WAR.”

The WP fronts the claim that despite denials coming out of the Taliban group that physically controls the region of Afghanistan where Osama Bin Laden operates, the U.S. government has “strong evidence from multiple sources” that the suicide attacks are connected to the multimillionaire Saudi terrorist. According to unnamed government officials quoted by the paper, this is based both on the assumption that this attack required the command and control capability associated with Bin Laden’s terror network and on specific other information obtained by U.S. intelligence after the attack, which probably means interceptions of phone calls. A NYT insider also suggests such interceptions have implicated Bin Laden.

The papers also cite other bits of evidence that may help add to the picture of what happened yesterday. Several passengers on several of the planes made phone calls after the hijackings. TV commentator and lawyer Barbara Olson, wife of U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson, who was killed on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon, made two brief cell calls to her husband from the doomed aircraft, telling him that the passengers and crew had been moved to the back of the plane by hijackers armed with knives and box-cutters. The WSJ front-page roundup says that a crew member on one of the flights called his airline’s operations center with the seat number of one of the attackers. The WP reports that late yesterday, at the Pennsylvania crash site, investigators recovered the plane’s flight-data and cockpit voice recorders.

There is consensus in the coverage that the attack crucially seized on the well-documented weakness of U.S. airport security for domestic flights, a system run mostly by minimum-wage employees. The LAT has a detail that indicates the planning that went into making knives the attackers’ weapon of choice: An airline security consultant says federal regulations allow passengers to carry two-inch blades and also that first class passengers receive three-inch knives along with their meals.

The coverage also suggests that the hijacker bands included pilots with large-jet experience. An LAT insider says that both WTC planes were brought in to their target buildings at the optimal altitude for bringing them down–high enough to clear the surrounding buildings, but low enough to leave great weight above the structurally weakened point of impact. A WP fronter reports that someone aboard the Pentagon plane had flipped off its transponder, which is used to broadcast ID, speed, and altitude information, and that the plane was originally headed at full-throttle speed toward the White House but then, like a fighter jet, suddenly executed a tight pivot and dropped below radar coverage as it bore down on the Pentagon. The NYT’s Safire observes the pool of fanatic jet-airliner-qualified pilots is not large. It could be added that airline personnel files, which include the records of recurring medical and psychological examinations, could therefore be quite helpful in identifying some of the killers. All airlines should make these records available to investigators–or lose their access to U.S. airports.

The NYT raises the most questions about President Bush’s handling of the crisis thus far. In his front-page news analysis, the paper’s R.W. Apple observes that unlike Bush, who spent the day dispersed to Air Force bases, John Kennedy, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, stayed in Washington. And the paper’s new columnist, Bill Keller, says that a friend told him that Vladimir Putin called Bush three times yesterday without reaching him, which was “a confidence-diminishing experience in which many Americans shared.”

The WP editorial and op-ed pages serve up the most hawkish advice about what to do now. Henry Kissinger advocates going after the global terrorist network, which means also making any government that shelters terror groups “pay an exorbitant price.” Citing the model of the World War II “Greatest Generation,” Robert Kagan writes that the only thing to do now is “Go to war with those who have launched this awful war against us.” The WP editorial states that “the nation must prepare itself to fight its first war of the new century.”