Where were you on T-Day?" That's the question we'll be asking each other for the rest of our lives. That's "T" as in Twin Towers, as in Terrorism and, maybe, Third World War.
Pearl Harbor — Dec. 7, 1941, the date that will "live in infamy," the date that lives in the memory of everyone of a certain age — was the hinge moment of 20th-century America when everything changed. The young men of that era had no way of knowing they would become "the Greatest Generation." The biggest challenge they faced was defeating Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo — and staying alive in the meantime. Nearly half a million died over the next four years.
T-Day, Sept. 11, 2001, a second infamous date, is different. The carnage in New York City alone looks to be the greatest devastation of the domestic population since the Civil War, as well as the greatest damage inflicted on the United States by a foreign power since the British burned Washington in 1814.
America may be the world's only superpower, but it was unable to defend its largest city. That humbling reality — that an open society is ripe with "soft targets" — must shape the U.S. response to this attack.
President Bush lacks Franklin Roosevelt's presence and grandiloquence, and so it's unlikely that memories of him will figure much in our collective memory of T-Day and its aftermath. But he is the commander-in-chief, and so his words — "The United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts" — are sure to be acted upon, and soon.
The problem, of course, is that this situation is not exactly like Pearl Harbor in 1941 or even like Fort Sumter in 1861 — battles in which a clearly defined enemy started shooting.
The situation is more comparable, perhaps, to the explosion of the USS Maine in Havana harbor on Feb. 15, 1898, in which 260 American sailors died. The United States blamed the blast on Spain, an act the Spanish denied, and two months of diplomatic wrangling preceded the commencement of the Spanish-American War. Even today, many experts believe that the explosion aboard the Maine was an accident, not sabotage.
The destruction Tuesday was definitely not an accident, but it still may take time to identify surviving perpetrators. The bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen last year, for example, is still officially unsolved; America has suspected terror chief Osama bin Laden all along, but the Yemeni government has been distinctly, and perhaps deliberately, unhelpful in the investigation.
The United States will be infinitely more resolute in its response this time. But, even assuming that guilt is fixed on bin Laden, what is the right response? Cruise-missile attacks on his desert encampments in Afghanistan? Occupation of the country and the overthrow of the Taliban? America may be ready for such action, even if it must go it alone.
Yet, it's not clear that conventional military action, necessary as it might be, would succeed in thwarting future terror. As the Israelis are discovering, suicide attacks on civilian targets are hard to prevent. And the use of civilian airliners as involuntary kamikaze planes is a new twist — an indicator that cunning terrorists don't need a base of operations somewhere. They just need their own suicidal determination.
Foreign military action aside, America on the homefront will be forever changed. We can expect an enormous tightening of domestic security. Just as the skyjackings in the early 1970s led to metal detectors at airports, just as truck bombings in Beirut in 1983 and Oklahoma City in 1995 led to the redesign of public space, so T-Day will force a reconsideration of metropolitan life. Checkpoints, security cameras and some sort of ethnically based terrorist profiling are sure to be features of daily existence from now on.
Moreover, will people be as eager to work and live in downtown areas? Or near landmarks? Will developers brag that their building is the biggest, the tallest? Bill Gates, the richest man in the world, lives underground outside Seattle; he may have been on to something.
Of course, the even bigger historical shoe has yet to drop: terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction, or WMD. The United States will survive T-Day, sadder and, let's hope. wiser. Yet, the great work of the 21st century is the avoidance of a WMD Day.
James P. Pinkerton is a Newsday columnist.