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The nation reels

Terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and Pentagon challenge aspects of America's core identity

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On a Tuesday like any other, with fall coming on and the kids settling into school, the United States of America was struck by a series of terror blows so searing they could change the nation's sense of itself as profoundly as did Pearl Harbor or the worst days of the Vietnam War.

The US is used to feeling invulnerable. Bombs, smoke, and a banshee chorus of rescue vehicles were for other, weaker, less prosperous places.

Now the very idea of America, as expressed in its symbolic buildings, has been successfully attacked. Going forward, one overarching debate will likely involve how that idea - of openness, of freedom of movement, of confidence in itself - may change.

"The big issue here is how much we will feel forced to close down our society now," says Stansfield Turner, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

The scale of the attacks was such that they were difficult to put into perspective. They created a whole new historical context of their own.

The terrible efficiency with which they were executed astounded even hardened terrorist experts. Two hijacked airliners slammed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center within minutes of each other. Shortly thereafter, another hijacked craft hit the Pentagon.

"To be able to make these attacks within an hour [of each other] - that shows an incredible degree of organization or skill," says Stanley Bedlington, a retired senior analyst at the CIA counterterrorism center.

The terrorist organization responsible must have been planning the attack for some time. That makes it unlikely the hijackers entered the country recently.

The implication: terrorist cells of long-standing organization are likely at work within the United States.

"They were seeded here and waiting," says a former CIA counterintelligence officer who asked not to be named.

President Bush vowed that whoever carried out the deeds will be punished.

"The resolve of our great nation is being tested. But make no mistake: We will show the world that we will pass [the test]," President Bush said.

But in the short run, the explosions shut down the nation's political and economic nerve centers. They accomplished the first task of any terrorist: that of sowing fear and panic among civilians.

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