Many other questions flowed from that one: Why did we not know anything about it? What ails airport security? How might an aircraft transformed to a torpedo be deflected?
These last questions will take much time to explore. But there is no reason to deliberate over Osama bin Laden's involvement. He is probably the aggressor. If it happens that he is not -- that some newborn entrepreneurial terrorist amassed the information and developed the resources to carry through the Sept. 11 massacre -- we can proceed on the assumption that any nation equipped to fight a two-front war can fight a two-front terrorist concentration.
If Osama is not hand-to-hand guilty of the events of Tuesday, he should suffer as though he was. It would not be as though we were punishing someone blameless. He has gone through the expected formality of denying sponsorship of the World Trade Center massacre -- while congratulating those who executed it.
A Taliban spokesman speaking in Pakistan reported his government's position on bin Laden. It is that the government is willing to deport him, but only after proof is presented that bin Laden is guilty. More of the same ... The Taliban have reassured us that bin Laden's activities are restricted; the Saudis denied him his citizenship after earlier terrorist acts; after the 1998 embassy attacks in Tanzania and Kenya, the United States launched missiles on bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan and on a chemicals factory in Sudan; the United Nations has sanctions against Afghanistan for sheltering him; the United States posted a $5 million award to anyone who turns him over.
Bin Laden's comment on all the above: "America has been trying ever since (a 1993 attack on U.S. military personnel in Somalia) to tighten its blockade against us and to arrest me. It has failed. This blockade does not hurt us much."
Our challenge is in two parts, the first being the elimination of bin Laden. The speech by President Bush had the singular feature of advising the world that the United States would deal equally with those who perform acts of terrorism and "those who harbor them." That has to mean, most directly, the Taliban government in Afghanistan. It is hardly obvious what it is we are in a position to do. But our movement against the Taliban has to come quickly, and has to be viewed as massive and irreconcilable. It must end in the end of the life of Osama bin Laden.
The second challenge is to confront the sepsis of bin Laden's brand of Muslim fundamentalism. Suicide missions are in vogue in the Mideast. The elimination of bin Laden will lance a boil, but will do less than eliminate the poison. There were several references on Tuesday to the cowardly attacks of the aggressors. But that word was thoughtlessly used, as simply one more weapon in the arsenal of derogation. The kamikaze Japanese pilots were many things, but not cowards.
The men who guided the airplanes into their final destination were deranged and the consequences of what they did were horrible. But those who are willing to give their lives to their cause aren't cowards, and the cause that moves them is proportionately grave. We handled the problem of kamikaze-minded warriors by dropping an atom bomb on the source of that infestation. There is no corresponding target for the holy warriors in Palestine and elsewhere in that part of the world.
Absolute defensive severity is a necessary defense. But the broader perspective is indispensable, and it tells us to seek to honor the memory of Tuesday's innocents by standing resolutely by the principles that made their country the object of the special odium of Osama bin Laden.