The Observer-Reporter building in Washington

Editor’s note: This is a reprint of the Observer-Reporter editorial the day after the 9//11 terrorist attacks.

“This is the second Pearl Harbor,” Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., said of the horrible events of Tuesday morning. But on Dec. 7, 1941, that other day of infamy, we immediately knew what country had attacked us. While it took four years to defeat those responsible, we at least had a clearly identifiable enemy to take action against.

Make no mistake, what we saw Tuesday were acts of war. There was an attack on the very heart of our military strength, the Pentagon, supposedly the securest place on earth. There was an attack on the World Trade Center, a financial headquarters as well as a visible place where thousands of people worked.

A car bomb that went off near the State Department apparently did little damage and went almost unnoticed in all the other carnage. No one knows the intended target of the hijacked airliner that crashed in Somerset County. The westbound flight had gone as far as Pittsburgh and apparently had been turned around and was headed in the direction of the nation’s capital.

In a grotesque twist of modern guerrilla warfare, not only were innocent Americans the victims, they were also used as weapons. The planes that smashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were loaded with travelers. We know from a 911 call placed by a passenger with a cellphone that people on the plane that crashed near Somerset were aware they had been hijacked. But did they and those aboard the other planes realize what was about to happen to them?

If we ever learn the answer to this question, it is too early now. And while we think about those on the planes, we can only imagine the horror felt by people in the buildings, whose workplaces were suddenly filled with smoke and flames. Witnesses saw people on fire screaming as they jumped from the Trade Center. When the towers collapsed, rescue workers and emergency crews were buried in the rubble.

It will be a long time yet before we even know how many people were killed and injured. From the numbers employed at the Trade Center and Pentagon and the passenger numbers on the planes, the totals could be in the thousands.

And who was this enemy responsible for this assault on America and its citizens? Coordinating and timing Tuesday morning’s events had to have been an enormous job and needed the participation of fanatics willing to commandeer the planes knowing they were committing suicide.

We can wonder, with all the security precautions in place at American airports, how hijackers, presumably armed, managed to get on three planes at Logan in Boston and one at Newark in the same morning. In the days and weeks to come, this will surely be one question that federal investigators will be addressing, possibly with new, even more time-consuming procedures. The flying public has generally been willing to put up with inconveniences if they make air travel safer. Now, however, authorities must explain how a band of terrorists was able to evade airport security systems so easily.

It will be tempting to call for restrictions, not just on travelers but on the rights of everyone. In the hysteria that followed the Oklahoma City bombing, police detained people for no other reason than that they appeared to be of Arab extraction and then were embarrassed when the bombing turned out to be the work of an American named McVeigh.

It’s important not to jump to conclusions here either. Federal authorities need to make a thorough investigation to bring those ultimately responsible to justice and deal with them as severely as the law allows.

If it develops that Tuesday’s atrocities, like Pearl Harbor, were the work of a government, then let us remember that these were acts of war. Our retaliation should fit the crime.

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