News Analysis `A Watershed Moment in American History’

By David J. Wong Hoya Staff Writer

Charles Nailen/The Hoya A helicopter lands near the smoking Pentagon.

On the morning after four hijacked jetliners collapsed New York’s World Trade Center and crashed into the Pentagon, the pall of smoke cast across the Potomac River was still visible from the Village A rooftops, a solemn, somber reminder of the destruction wrought the day before.

In the aftermath of what could be the deadliest engagement on American soil, images of airplanes exploding into New York skyscrapers, armed military aircraft patrolling the Washington, D.C., airspace and Americans running in horror behind blaring police sirens reintroduced the Militarized Zone, a concept university students had previously encountered only in history texts.

The attacks marked the seminal moment of an era, the catalyst of events that will define a generation. Georgetown University – like the rest of the United States – awoke Wednesday to a vastly different world.

There is no context for the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001. Comparisons to the first World Trade Center attack in 1993 and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 fall far short in scale and gravity. Analogies to Pearl Harbor are inadequate because of the proximity and civilian victims of the attack, and frustrated by the elusiveness of the enemy.

“It’s a watershed event in American history,” says Audrey Kurth Cronin, a Georgetown professor of security studies and an authority on terrorism and political violence. “At Pearl Harbor, we knew who the enemy was. We’re in a new paradigm that doesn’t fit the World War II model.”

“There is not a precedent we can follow.”

Indeed, the rhetoric from government and media has reinforced what President George W. Bush has declared “an attack on America” as a precursor to “a new kind of war.”

This first strike has wounded, more significantly than anything else, the notion of American security, the idea that Americans in America are immune to attack. It is embodied in the frantic attempts Tuesday morning by Georgetown students searching for assurances of the safety of their loved ones scattered across the country.

It is a new type of fear that paralyzed the campus and the nation in the moments after Tuesday’s attacks, fear of a faceless enemy from whom there is seemingly no sanctuary.

This was the horror that was palpable to Georgetown students. In the ensuing days, prayers have been said for students who lost family in Manhattan. A Georgetown professor of public policy, Leslie A. Whittington, and her family died, as well as Lisa J. Raines (L ’82) aboard the American Airlines flight that plunged into the Pentagon. And as of Thursday evening, many of the over 100 Georgetown alumni who worked in the World Trade Center and Pentagon are still missing.

Amid Tuesday morning’s chaos, Georgetown was both fixated and frenetic. The television images of New York and Washington, D.C., burning captivated students, who tore themselves away only to field and attempt telephone calls from parents, siblings, friends and neighbors.

The emotions of the past 48 hours have been poignant. First there was disbelief – amazement that the world’s most powerful nation could be so paralyzed and demoralized, so violated and vulnerable. Disbelief gave way to sadness, tempered by fear, as the death toll estimates reached incomprehensible levels and the magnitude of the attack set in.

That sadness now has begotten anger, a quiet seething within Healy Gates and beyond, rising from the ashes of a waning peace and fueling the fires of a growing resolve.

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