WASHINGTON, D.C. --On Tuesday, when I boarded an 8:45 a.m. flight from Detroit to Reagan National Airport, there wasn't the slightest hint of trouble.
As usual, a ticket agent gave a cursory glance at my driver's license to "verify" that the name on the ticket matched the name on the license and that the picture on the license vaguely resembled the person standing at the counter.
As usual, the airline employee asked, "Have your bags been in your possession since you packed them?" Answer: "Yes." And then, "Has anyone given you anything to put into your bags?" Answer: "No."
As usual, my bags were run through an X-ray machine and I walked through a metal detector, past semi-somnolent "security" personnel, none of whom even blinked, stopped or inquired about the "Leatherman" tool or "Swiss Army" knife in my bag. And as usual, we took off for our destination. Shortly thereafter, "usual" ended forever in the United States.
Just before arriving, our pilot announced, without explanation, that our flight was being diverted to Dulles International Airport. He did not mention then what some of us discovered minutes later from news bulletins on our pagers: that American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 had both been hijacked from Boston's Logan Airport and turned into flaming kamikazes, slamming into the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center.
By the time we landed at Dulles, 25 miles west of Washington, two more hijacked aircraft were flaming wreckage. American Airlines flight 77, outbound from Dulles to San Francisco, had struck the west side of the Pentagon, and United Flight 93 from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco had crashed into a field in Somerset County, Pa. Passengers disembarking from our flight were told to evacuate the airport immediately. Dulles Airport police wouldn't even allow checked bags to be retrieved.
When I managed to commandeer a cab, the driver initially refused to take me into Washington, citing radio reports that the city was being evacuated. A hefty tip convinced him to at least try. As we headed into the capital, a plume of black smoke darkened the sky above the Pentagon. As I made calls to my Radio America and FOX News Channel producers, the cabbie volunteered in a heavy accent, "Osama must be made to pay for this." I asked the driver, "Where are you from?" He responded, "Afghanistan."
Since that awful hour of coordinated carnage, we have learned much more. The two attacks in New York were timed to kill as many fire, rescue and police as possible -- a terror tactic often employed in the Middle East and by the IRA.
From cell phone calls made by courageous passengers aboard the hijacked flights, we have learned that three to six terrorists in each plane used knives to seize control of four fuel-laden cross-country aircraft. We now know that intelligence analysts believe that at least 50 terrorists, some of them well-trained pilots, were sent here to perpetrate remarkably well-planned attacks and that the target for the plane that struck the Pentagon and the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania was likely the White House.
We know that they suspect other terrorists were thwarted in their deadly missions by the president's swift decision to ground all aircraft. We know that Palestinians in the Middle East celebrated the images of blasted buildings and horrific loss of human life being televised internationally. And though no one seems willing to say it publicly, we know that the orchestrator of this deadly day is Osama bin Laden.
No one will ever forget the movie-like horror of a 767 ripping into the World Trade Center's south tower -- or the image of two 110-story structures collapsing in a cascade of debris while New Yorkers ran for their lives. And though the final toll is still being compiled by those dragging bodies from rubble in New York and at the Pentagon, Sept. 11, 2001, is already the worst terrorist attack in American history. All this we now know. But there is one more thing that is not yet known that must also become part of the horrible history of this event: America's response.
It must be sure, severe and sustained. It cannot simply be tighter airport controls -- though that is certainly necessary. It must not be the promise of apprehension and prosecution. Osama bin Laden claims he is in a "holy war" against the United States and Israel. From his refuges in Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq and Turkmenistan, he mocks the hollow threat of arrest and trial.
President Bush has called the attacks "an act of war." Our NATO allies have invoked Article 5 of the NATO Charter: An attack on one is an attack on all. Yet now, in the aftermath of the most heinous and cowardly assault on any civilian population ever, the Congress has, once again, failed to do its duty. Only the Congress can declare war.
Yet, on the night of Sep. 11, with fires still raging in New York and at the Pentagon, the congressional leaders gathered to draft a joint resolution. My sources on Capitol Hill tell me Democrats refused to support a measure to grant "war powers" to the president or to classify the attacks as acts of "war."
Timid Republicans allowed the resolution to be watered down to a statement of sympathy, outrage and vague resolve. They then gathered to sing songs and hug. In the midst of so much carnage, compassion and courage, congressional cowardice is shameful.