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Historical Perspective on They Day's Tragic Attack

Aired September 11, 2001 - 23:55   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Our Jeff Greenfield is standing by in New York with more. Jeff?

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SR. ANALYST: Thank you. We have heard for the last 13 or 14 hours that this is, in the worst sense, a historic day. We thought we ought to talk to two people to give us some historical context.

From Washington, Pulitzer prize winning author, David McCullough is with us. David, you're with us here?


GREENFIELD: And here in New York, Pulitzer prize winning journalist David Halberstam.

Mr. McCullough, this country has always considered itself blessed, protected by two oceans. In World War II, nothing happened here, nobody was injured by bombs. When a strike like this happens, and it has happened in the past to Americans, does it do something to us, to our sense of who we are and how protected we are?

MCCULLOUGH: Well, it's almost certainly going to bring us closer together. It's going to make problems that we thought were very important seem less, by far. We've never had violence of this kind happen on our home ground, war brought to our own home place this way since the Civil War. The Johnstown flood, the Galveston flood, two of the worst disasters in the country's history will probably seem less than this when the awful toll is added up.

I think it's really worse than Pearl Harbor, because it was an attack on innocent civilians, not on a military target. The world is not at war, at least in the usual sense that it was in 1941, when war was very much in the air, even if we weren't in it. And the scale of it all, and the fact that our own equipment, our own airplanes, our own citizens flying in those airplanes were used as human bombs against our own great structures, the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, heroic New York, high rise New York was seen to collapse before our eyes. Unimaginable.

It's a treachery, it's a day of horror unlike anything we've ever experienced in our whole time as a nation.

GREENFIELD: David Halberstam, that brings another point up. We've often talked after the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, that history -- the end of history, somebody called it in a book. We were only at a time when small events would move us.

DAVID HALBERSTAM, PULITZER PRIZE JOURNALIST: Oh, no, no. A new chapter in the history. I mean it was -- The Cold War has its own fears, a bipolar world. But in some ways it was a safer world. I mean it was more controlled. Now it's more fragmented, it's more volatile, and this is an act of war, something -- a kind of war to which we are sort of uniquely vulnerable, because the magnetic field of our power and our intelligence is very frail as you get deeper into what is apparently the place of origin of this terrorism.

So, how do we manifest our power, which is very real, in a place so far in distance? It's a very -- you know you start the day numbed by it, and then the magnitude of what it means and how it changes life. A free and open society being challenged by this kind of terrorism to continue the kind of freedom of movement and access, which is so elemental to the way we live.

GREENFIELD: And David McCullough, there have been times when we have been faced by war, that we have, at least temporarily, given up some of our civil liberties. Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus in the Civil War, the internment of the Japanese.

Are we at a different point now in our history, or are we likely to respond in some measure by restricting our own freedom to get some more security?

MCCULLOUGH: I really do think things will change after this, it's inevitable. This is a day that will change history. It will change it in some ways for the better, but I'm afraid that it will also mean a curtailing, trimming up some -- maybe even eviscerating of the open society as we know. And that's a sad, sad time, but it's the reality.

It stresses our vulnerability in a way that we've not experienced in our past as a nation. We -- it happened here. Any of us could have been on those planes. Any of us could have been, and we all were, in a sense, going to work in those buildings this morning.

And as David Halberstam just said, it's the accumulative effect of the day as it's progressed on all of us, on the whole country, so that tonight we really feel the weight when the mayor Giuliani was talking, and the fire commissioner were talking about the losses of those brave people. That brings this home as nothing else can, in human terms.

GREENFIELD: And David Halberstam, if in the past, if we look back to the day of infamy, Pearl Harbor, the next day we were at war against an enemy who we knew exactly who that enemy was and what we were going to do.

Does the shadowy nature of this power make it even tougher to rally defensively?

HALBERSTAM: It's -- I don't know if it makes harder. It's harder to sustain. You can rally. Can you sustain? There's a tendency, going back to Pearl Harbor, Japan and Germany, later the Soviets, more recently Slobodan Milosevic, to underestimate democracy, to underestimate the power of democracies, the energy to think that we're decadent and weak. I think this is a very important moment because I think for the first time, the full energies of this nation will be focused on something that has always been a little bit outside our reach, erratic little issues.

This is a new kind of era we're in. I think when we put our full energies in there and we perhaps start making some of the surrounding countries and make them offers that they cannot refuse, the people who harbor these terrorists, it may be a different era. But, I mean, this is something -- this is a very new demarcation point.

GREENFIELD: Because we're down to our last minute, I want to show our audience and both of you David some tape of what remains of the World Trade Center, because it brings to mind something that the Senate chaplain said on November 22nd, 1963 when John Kennedy died. He said, "We gaze at a vacant space against the sky," which is what all of America and the world is doing now. And then he added, "But God lives and the government of Washington still stands.

David McCullough, is there any doubt given this country that we will, in the most important sense, get through the horror that we are witnessing now?

MCCULLOUGH: No doubt whatsoever. No doubt whatsoever. We are a much stronger, much more resilient, much more deeply profoundly, truly patriotic country than we'd like to admit, and it's going to change the whole nature of what happens in this city of Washington in the next several days and probably for years to come.

And we -- I was reminded today of something Churchill said during the war when he came across the Atlantic. I think he said it Canada but he was speaking for both the Canadian and the American people. He said, "We haven't journeyed this far because we're made of sugar candy."

GREENFIELD: That's true also, David Halberstam, was a New Yorker of the city that...

HALBERSTAM: Well, this is a very gritty city. You don't become a New Yorker and stay here if you are soft tissue. I think one of the great things -- it would be a great mistake to under estimate the resilience of this country, city. I mean, I think there's such strength. We didn't get to where we are, we didn't become a beacon for so much of the rest of the world, we didn't get that Dow Jones and all these other qualities out of nothing.

GREENFIELD: David McCullough in Washington, David Halberstam here in New York, thank you very much for joining us. I just thought it would help a bit at the end of this very long and horrible day to get some historical perspective on this event and realize that this country's been through a great deal. And we've made it so far and we'll make it again.

I'm Jeff Greenfield in New York.



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