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America reels at terror outrage

Symbolic obliteration

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A visiting tech CEO broke the news to us at 7am Pacific Time. He was at San Francisco Airport, and had just learned that all outbound flights had been cancelled. He wanted our advice on how to best get to Los Angeles quickly for two days of business meetings he had planned.

"Planes have flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon! You should see the pictures."

Two hours later, he called us again from an LA-bound Amtrak train (we'd recommended racing down Route 5 instead), and there'd been a change of plan. The meetings had been cancelled. The partner of the firm he was scheduled to meet was dead, and others missing, casualties of the horrors in Manhattan.

California is a continent away from New York, and us residents here kind of think of it as a safe planet-distance away from anywhere else. But it isn't, and the severing of the business artery that links East and West brought that home fairly rapidly. (All four planes hijacked by the terrorists were bound for the Golden State - three for Los Angeles and one for San Francisco itself).

In San Francisco, the downtown Financial District had emptied by midday: staff in the TransAmerica Pyramid and the Banc of America tower were told to go home. Airports and government offices closed, and the tourist attractions of Alcatraz and Pier 39 shut their doors.

Up on Masonic Street, the Blood Center had a two hour queue, and was still turning away donors.

Alexander Cockburn made the point in the best piece we've read on the catastrophe, and he bravely eschewed the glib comparisons being made almost everywhere else to Pearl Harbor:-

"In terms of symbolic obliteration the attack is virtually without historic parallel, a trauma at least as great as the San Francisco earthquake or the Chicago fire," he wrote here in what's the best summary of the attack we've read. (Although you'll probably want to punch him by the end of the story).

So America filtered home to its TV sets, as we did.

The network news channels looped the images over and over, subtitling them with news of cancellations of the utterly banal: baseball was cancelled for the first time since the war ... and we heard that the Latin Grammys had been suspended.

Although the US TV news channels are a byword abroad for tacky sensationalism and cheap sentimentality, and for generally being dumber than a dumb bell, we found them restrained and dignified. An exasperated Dan Rather was caught chewing an assistant off in a blind weary panic.

But the networks looped, and relooped the footage, adding to their repertoire several amateur videos. Only with one exception: the attack on the Pentagon was shown several times until about midday Pacific Time, and never subsequently repeated: we guess it was a symbolic image (the plane raking in at a steep angle) too powerful to avoid censure. Subsequent coverage of the Pentagon crash - in which up to 800 staff are feared missing - relied on shots of the smouldering building and eyewitness testimony.

And in the most extraordinary image, CNN transmitted a low-angle video of the second tower, with the fated face confronting the camera, in which the building appeared to swallow and absorb the airliner whole for a fraction of a second.

I don't want to go to Antietam

Years ago, The Register took IBM to task for preceding an OS/2 launch with an exceptionally loud fireworks crescendo [Reg Issue 14]: "when you hear a bang, in London, after 25 years of urban warfare, we hit the dirt," we noted.

(The said IBM marketing director then was the unfortunately monikered Dan Launtenbach, who was forever after known as Dan Louderbang.)

But you see the point:-

America isn't used to terrorist attacks, while the rest of the world is. In fact bombs haven't fallen on the mainland in a long time, and probably not since the Civil War at Antietam have so many Americans perished in a single day on its own soil. So outsiders, weary of bomb alerts, might miss the extent of the shock being felt here.

We guess what's doubly shocking is the vulnerability that the attacks expose, and this isn't a vulnerability that's specifically American. The terrorists had merely knives and box sawers with which threaten plane crews and passengers, but they were in effect were turning the technological might of America against itself, and against a helpless civilian population.

Against this kind of outrage, the state's defense apparatus - its gleaming navies and high-tech airforces - are useless. The US is at war, but not against a state. While the incumbents, The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight, might name a convenient proxy (Afganistan, Korean, perhaps even Scotland) on which to exact some revenge, they'll be no closer to the target than if they chose to bomb Kansas, and this is why.

Should Bin Laden be fingerered as the culprit, he'll be an entirely new kind of enemy against which the billions spent on defense are useless. He's essentially a private entrepreneur.

As the networks clocked towards midnight, hawks appeared to coach Americans to indiscriminate retaliation (which would neatly suit the terrorist goals of turning neutral world opinion against it) and to rescinding essential American freedoms (the right not to have the government watch your every move).

Even the Social Security Budget was considered fair game for plunder by hawkish pundits, come late evening, forgetting that much of the US citizen's tax dollar already fund ancient cold-war fantasies that imagine an equally cold war phantom enemy, while leaving its civilian population vulnerable. Call us old fashioned, but if you're really going to have a government - and it's a lot of hassle - then the government's first obligation should be to defend its people. ®

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