In the first dark days after September 11, America was paralyzed at the magnitude of not only the theft of 2,977 innocent lives, but also the shock of a country so safe now appearing to be on the front lines of a gruesome clash of civilizations.
On September 14, a humble, bewildered, but unbroken President George W. Bush made the pilgrimage to Ground Zero, to smell the dust and smoke which still rose from the debris firefighters and rescue teams began to remove and comb for bodies. When he arrived around 4:40 in the afternoon, he was stunned. Nothing he had seen on television could have prepared him for an experience of this degree of power and sorrow.
“From the air it looked like… you know, a giant scar,” the former president told National Geographic in 2011 for a tenth-anniversary special, “but when… you actually got to the site… it was like walkin’ into Hell.”
“There was, ah, still smoke in the air, and water on the ground. It was dim, it was dark… no light. …It was [an]… ugly scene,” he said.
“…I decided I was gonna’ shake every hand. I, ah, got a look in everybody’s eyes: I could see just bloodshot from people that were workin’ overtime. …As I worked my way down, people started sayin’, you know, ‘You get ’em!’ — I mean, there was kind of a palpable bloodlust. …These workers were interested in findin’ out whether or not we were gonna’ go find that enemy and bring ’em to justice — that’s what they wanted to know.”
As the president beheld the terrible wound in America’s heart, he was led onto a pile of smashed metal which he later learned was a fire truck the collapse of one of the towers had flattened to a minute fraction of its original height. He turned to face the crowd, his arm around a middle-aged firefighter named Bob Beckwith, while applause and manly chants of “U.S.A.!” filled the barren, weeping landscape.
“…Somebody handed me a megaphone,” the president recalled. “I didn’t have any prepared remarks, but I knew I… could cobble something together in front of the crowd that would comfort and reassure them.”
“I want you all to know,” the president said into the now-famous bullhorn today housed in his own presidential library, “that America today… is on bended knee, in prayer for the people whose lives were lost here, for the workers who work here, for the families who mourn.”
As the president spoke to the crowd in reassuring tones, a man continued to shout, “I can’t hear you! I can’t hear you!”
And the president replied, as an inner, nearly optimistic defiance surfaced: “I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you, and the people… who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”
Those words confirmed the deepest fears of Usamah bin Laden: the “weak horse,” to which he confidently compared the United States to a group of supporters a month later, was a fatal failure of imagination. What George Bush unleashed that day was the destruction of al-Qā‘idah in the wastes of Afghanistan and later Iraq — and the reality that America, when wounded, was a fully-fleshed tiger, not the paper one bin Laden had calculated.