Less than a week has passed since two hijacked commercial airliners crashed into New York's World Trade Center on 11 September and a third hit the U.S. Defense Department's headquarters in Washington. Americans are still struggling to grasp the enormity of these acts of terror. Now their government is asking them to prepare for a long war against the people responsible -- and those who harbor them.
Washington, 17 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- High-ranking U.S. government officials are making a concerted effort to prepare the American people for a protracted campaign against the people who planned the 11 September acts of terror in New York and Washington.
President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the struggle will be long, and asked Americans to be patient. Bush made his plea in an exchange with reporters yesterday afternoon outside the White House.
"This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while, and the American people must be patient. But I can assure the American people that I am determined. I'm not going to be distracted. I will keep my focus to make sure that not only are these [terrorists] brought to justice, but anybody who has been associated with them will be brought to justice. Those who harbor terrorists will be brought to justice. It is time for us to win the first war of the 21st century decisively."
Meanwhile, Cheney revealed that on the day of the attacks, Bush, after hearing that jetliners had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York, authorized the U.S. military to shoot down any hijacked aircraft that threatened Washington. Speaking on "Meet the Press," a program on the American television network NBC, he said it was a difficult decision, knowing that to do so would doom many innocent passengers aboard.
"You've got an airplane full of American citizens, civilians, captured by hostages -- captured by terrorists...and are you going to, in fact, shoot it down, obviously, and kill all those Americans on board? And you have to ask yourself, 'If we had had combat air patrol up over New York and we'd had the opportunity to take out the two aircraft that hit the World Trade Center, would we have been justified in doing it?' And I think absolutely we would have."
As it happened, the order never had to be executed.
Because of the terrorists' success in using hijacked planes as high-speed airborne bombs, the government has imposed strict security at airports to prevent a recurrence. But Cheney, Powell, and Rumsfeld said the U.S. is not limiting itself to airline security.
They said the attacks were so successful at least in part because they were utterly unexpected. Therefore, security officials say if there are further acts of terror, they must be prepared for something that has not been used before against the U.S. -- specifically weapons of mass destruction. Powell put it this way in an interview on "Face the Nation," a program on the American network CBS:
"I think we have to be worried about any of these threats -- chemical, biological, radiological. I think this is going to require a full-court [complete] response on the part of the American government, the American people, state and local governments, to prepare ourselves for whatever eventuality might be out there. We can't dismiss that possibility."
Rumsfeld, the defense secretary, stressed that no precautions can completely protect the American people from acts of terror. He told reporters in Washington that the most disturbing element about terrorists is that they can strike "at any time, in any place, using any technique." He says that would mean providing protection everywhere at all times, which is beyond the reach of any government.
But he says the U.S. is prepared to deal a staggering blow against terrorists by going after them where they are based.
"We have to take this battle, this war, to the terrorists where they are, and the best defense is an effective offense, in this case, and that means they have to be rooted out."
Cheney, meanwhile, made it clear that the campaign the U.S. plans to mount against terrorism will not be limited to those response for the recent attacks. The vice-president said those who harbor or in any other way help the terrorists will face what he called "the full wrath of the United States."
He singled out the Taliban, the militia that controls most of Afghanistan. The Taliban is believed to be allowing Osama bin Laden to stay in that country as what they call a "guest." Bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi exile, is suspected of previous attacks on the U.S. military overseas, and Bush says he is the leading suspect in the 11 September attacks.
"The president has been very, very clear that to harbor terrorists is to, in effect, accept a certain degree of guilt for the acts that they -- that they commit, and the government of Afghanistan has to understand that we believe they have, indeed, been harboring the man who committed the -- whose organization committed this most recent egregious act."
The American news agency Associated Press reports that Pakistan has sent a delegation to Afghanistan to warn the Taliban that it must hand over bin Laden or face a massive U.S. military assault.
If bin Laden's organization -- called Al Qaida -- is responsible, there is some question whether he also received some help from Iraq's president, Saddam Hussein. Iraq is among seven countries whose governments are said to sponsor terrorism. Both Cheney and Powell said there is no evidence yet of any Iraqi involvement. But they noted that strict sanctions are in place against Iraq, and will remain in place. Cheney said:
"In the past there have been some activities related to terrorism by Saddam Hussein, but at this stage, the focus is over here on Al Qaida and the most recent events in New York. Saddam Hussein's bottled up at this point, but truly we continue to have a fairly tough policy where the Iraqis are concerned."
Two other countries that the U.S. says sponsors terrorism are Syria and Iran. Powell said Syria has issued what he called a "forthcoming [positive] statement" of support. He did not give details, but added that it indicates "new opportunities," as he put it, to engage Syria against terrorism.
Similarly, Iran has issued a public statement that he characterized as "positive." Iran's reformist president, Mohammed Khatami, was re-elected to a second four-year term in June. But Powell said it is not yet clear whether the Iranian government would go so far as to support the U.S. military against those who attacked New York and Washington.
"Iran made a rather positive statement -- for Iran. We have serious differences with the government of Iran because of their support of terrorism. But they have made a statement, and it seems to be a statement that is worth exploring, to see whether or not they now recognize that this [terrorism] is a curse on the face of the earth."
Otherwise, Powell, Cheney and Bush said the response to the U.S. call for a global coalition against terrorism has been encouraging. They gave no details, however, saying the effort has only begun. Bush in particular expressed satisfaction with the offers of help.
"We will continue to work with Pakistan and India. We will work with Russia. We will work with the nations that one would have thought a couple of years ago would have been impossible to work with, to bring people to justice but more than that: to win the war against terrorist activity."
And Powell added that U.S. officials will be meeting with government leaders in Uzbekistan to see how that Central Asian nation might be able to help. Uzbekistan shares a short border with Afghanistan.
The New York Stock Exchange -- America's leading site for trading -- was set to open today. The exchange, only a few blocks from where the World Trade Center once stood, has been closed since the attack on 11 September.