Right after the tubular panel on the morning of 9/11/01, the moderator told of stupefying events unfolding in New York and announced the rest of the conference had been canceled. Everyone headed toward a TV set in the lobby, some breaking into a half-trot. About every fifth or sixth person whipped out a cell phone. They were the only ones talking. The rest of us stood in somber silence with eyes fixed on the TV screen looking at what resembled a clip from one of those Bruce Willis cop flicks, except the airplane and familiar building were sickeningly real. A woman in the group started sobbing. This was bad. This was unprecedented. This was like Pearl Harbor, I thought, as did so many others.
I stayed just a couple of minutes before heading back to the office to be with friends and colleagues. I was in a hurry to tell them the news if they had not yet heard it. The hotel parking lot attendant commented about it as I exited, and I marveled at how fast news travels in this wondrous age of ours. Of course my co-workers already knew. When I arrived a couple of minutes later, several of them were chatting in our building's parking lot, having been told that our office would be closed the rest of the day. My first reaction was this was a silly thing to do. Even though we are just a runway's distance away from O'Hare Airport, our unassuming little facility was in no particular danger. Then it dawned on me. The shutdown wasn't about security. It was about humanity. Business took a back seat to sharing America's grief on one of the worst days of American history.
This American went home and spent most of the rest of the day watching the tube with my family. Despite constant goading from the TV reporters, none of the authorities wanted to speculate about the casualty toll. The word "thousands" passed from a few lips, including the President's. Our family discussed the potential for the death toll to surpass 10,000. I tried to put it in perspective for my daughters. Upwards of 2,400 lost their lives at Pearl Harbor, I told them. This was shaping up worse, made all the more horrific by the victims being noncombatants. By the time this gets into print, you'll know the terrible tally, but as I write it on Sept. 12, the body count had barely begun.
As the horror magnified throughout the day, anger tugged with compassion for possession of this soul. How sorry I felt for all those innocents killed and injured, which I've since found out includes a PHCC staff member and, it seems, many members of a UA maintenance crew at the World Trade Center. I shuddered thinking about the final desperate moments in the airplanes and buildings, and about how none of us have any control over meeting such a fate. How I yearned for retaliation. After our last big salvo against Iraq, news came out of our running low on cruise missiles. I hoped our production lines had been running full speed since then. I cheered when CNN showed an ammo dump blowing up in Kabul, and felt a bit deflated when it turned out to be the work of Afghan rebels.
Thoughts veered spiritual contemplating how awful life would be if our universe really were governed by the monster god worshipped by the suicidal maniacs. Imagine a deity taking pleasure in random death and destruction, and rewarding those who carry it out. Islam itself is not the source of this monster god. Islam's message is one of universal brotherhood and has resounded to the overall benefit of mankind. It's hardly unprecedented that today's terrorists have twisted that message into a culture of death. Through the ages, people acting in the name of various religions have sought salvation in acts of atrocity. It escapes me how the barrier between good and evil can be perceived so transparently.
Back on earth, there are the economic questions. It verges on obscene to focus on money matters in the immediate aftermath, which is why the stock market closed in the days that followed. But life soon will return to normal for most of us, and the economic impact will surely add to our burden.
Which brings me back to that economic forecast conference I attended on 9/11. I could report the outlooks expressed, but think it would be meaningless. In the space of an hour, the speakers' suppositions were rendered obsolete. The world had changed. We are at war.
At this writing it is unclear exactly how our leaders will conduct this war, but of this I am sure - the American people will demand more than the diplomatic and military half-measures taken after the bombings of our embassies and military targets. This was different. This hit us where we live. This was more revolting than the attacks on our military forces half a world away, even more disgusting than Pearl Harbor, where our forces were at least able to fight back a little bit. One can feel it among our population, among our political leadership, among our allies, and even among our adversaries.
In the days following the attacks, partisanship is completely missing from Washington, even more so than in the first Bush Administration when there was significant opposition to its Persian Gulf initiatives. Liberals and conservatives are all talking tough and united in support of this Administration. Congress just passed an emergency $22 billion spending bill targeted at cleanup and intelligence gathering. It may be just a first installment.
Internationally, an unprecedented agreement was reached with mind-numbing swiftness to invoke the NATO treaty for concerted action against the terrorists. Moreover, it is revealing to monitor worldwide reaction to the lunacy of Sept. 11. Even those who worship the monster god felt compelled to suck up to America. Only Saddam Hussein, who has nothing left to lose, gloated over America's pain. Vile characters such as Arafat, Ghadafi and the Taliban leaders expressed what are surely insincere regrets, even while thousands of their demented followers celebrated the news. Islamic Jihad, Hamas and even Bin Laden went to the trouble of denying responsibility.
When people who delight in provoking America take care not to provoke us, one senses that they sense they may have gone too far. Perhaps they recall the famous lament of Admiral Yamamoto, who said after the attack on Pearl Harbor that his nation had "awakened a sleeping giant and filled him with terrible resolve."
I think so. I think we are through trying to reason with people who regard death as preferable to life. I think we're fed up with the legalisms of trying to prove exactly which terrorist has his fingerprints on precisely which bomb. What does it matter if Bin Laden did the World Trade Center when we still owe him for the African embassy bombings? Why tie ourselves in knots trying to prosecute shadowy terrorist cells when our enemies are all too willing to identify themselves shouting "death to America" at every opportunity?
I think President Bush felt the spirit of America in declaring war not only on the terrorists, but the nations that shelter them. I think our society is ready to ditch its silly infatuation with cultural relativism and weigh in on the side of civilization over the world order of medieval superstition favored by the monster god worshippers. And I think watching those massive towers collapse rid Americans of any illusions that this war can be fought without casualties on our part.
So, back to economics, what's ahead? In the short term, it's hard to see anything but bad news resulting from this blow against our nation and our people. But keep in mind that economics is a social science driven by peoples' confidence in the future. America is passing into something resembling a wartime economy. This will surely entail hardships, but it also has united us with a sense of purpose that has been missing from American life for a long time.
History offers plenty of evidence of what happens when America grows resolute to assert its values in this world. The two world wars and the Gulf War resulted in the thorough defeat of vicious enemies, followed by lengthy periods of unprecedented prosperity for our nation and its allies. Nobody knows whether the bad times will last for months or years, but I think it will be shorter than most people fear. The darkest hours are before the dawn, and on September 11 we passed through that time.