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Nowhere seems like a safe place anymore

Attacks brought an end to any idea that U.S. is invincible

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WASHINGTON — Hunkered down, grieving and nervous, America won't soon be the same.

The attacks that rained death on New York, Washington and a field in Pennsylvania brought an end, too, to any idea that a strong country can be an invincible one.

Well away from the destruction, the symbols of American life — its work and play — slammed shut. No Disney World. No Mall of America. The first cancellation of a day's major league baseball games, for reasons other than labor troubles, since D-Day.

No lazy white contrails in the late-summer sky, with the U.S. air space closed to commercial flights for the first time ever.

Even the government hid, diverting President Bush to military bases in the nation's midsection on his way back from Florida and sending congressional leaders to a mountain fortification west of Washington.

The peace before Tuesday was deceptive. The sense of security was unearned.

"America is forever changed," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. "America is in for a long fight."

The rituals of American gatherings will resume, and Bush was back in the saddle Tuesday night, speaking to the country.

But the World Trade Center towers are gone, one side of the Pentagon is in ruins, four airliners are down, and the United States is vowing to get justice against an unknown enemy.

In Crawford, Texas, home of Bush's ranch, schools were closed and the worry was palpable. "If they can't protect the Pentagon, how can they protect us?" Joyce Smith asked. "We'll just have to sit here and hold tight."

So, too, in West Virginia, where one of the terrorists' presumed points had sunk in.

"If it made people in small towns afraid to go to work in the morning, I think they really accomplished something in their minds, probably," Russell Kitchen, a legislative staffer at the state Capitol in Charleston, said during a mandatory evacuation.

On the confused streets of Washington, police gazed skyward with guns drawn as government workers poured from closed offices and tried to get home. Pockets of pedestrians shooed farther and farther back from the White House broke into panicked runs.

Here, in New York and everywhere, the allusion so many reached for was Pearl Harbor.

But even that great shocker of American history was not completely apt, for this time the invader was unknown.

The enemies were simply "they."

"So devastating, so frustrating, what can you do?" asked Ajay Kapoo, a software engineer who saw the World Trade Center explosions from his office two blocks away.

"How could they pull this off?" Joyce Jackson, an AT&T security expert in Washington, asked with a sigh. "This country is supposed to be able to protect against something like this."

So many questions. So much danger comes improbably to the doorstep.

Kevin O'Keefe, a college student in Washington, rushed to the Red Cross to give blood. The crowd of donors grew.

"I can't believe I'm in downtown D.C., in the middle of a terrorism crisis," he said. "This shows how vulnerable we are."

John Croom, 69, a retired Army staff sergeant, watched in bewilderment from his hilltop home as the smoke poured from the Pentagon.

"I don't understand how they could do this," he said. "They flew so low. I was in the military for 20 years. I thought Washington was protected."

Delusions of invincibility have been dashed before, and at the same ground zeros — in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, when six people died, and in the mad actions of people with grudges or inner demons shooting guns at the White House and at Congress.

The Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, attacks on Americans abroad — all have contributed in myriad ways to the fortification of public places and made people more alert.

But there has been nothing remotely like this.

"Every single American, no matter where you live, the whole country's on edge," said Linda Wilson, 42, of Denver.

"This has the capacity to change the way we live our lives in this country," said Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Ohio. "I don't think we will ever feel as secure as we have in the past."