Bush vows justice, calls for unity

President returns to D.C. to address nation after cutting short Florida trip

Terrorism Strikes America

The Response

September 12, 2001|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush vowed last night to avenge the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, and he warned that the United States would "make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them."

"These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat," Bush said. "But they have failed. Our country is strong. A great people has been moved to defend a great nation."

In a four-minute televised address from the Oval Office, Bush called on Americans to remain strong as they recover from attacks that "filled us with disbelief, terrible sadness and a quiet, unyielding anger."

He also referred to something that authorities had declined to speculate on all day yesterday: the magnitude of the death toll.

"Thousands of lives were suddenly ended by evil, despicable acts of terror," the president said.

"I ask for your prayers for all those who grieve, for the children whose worlds have been shattered, for all whose sense of safety and security has been threatened," he said.

Bush did not say whom he suspected of planning or carrying out the attacks. But several officials said yesterday that suspicion had fallen upon Osama bin Laden, who has been linked to the bombing of U.S. embassies abroad and to other terrorist acts and has been harbored by the Taliban government in Afghanistan.

The president spoke upon returning to Washington last night after traveling during the day from Louisiana to Nebraska, to give security officials time to consider whether the White House was safe. Bush had begun the day in Florida - where he has been traveling since Monday - and was at a Sarasota elementary school when he learned that two commercial jetliners had crashed into the World Trade Center in Manhattan.

White House evacuated

At the White House yesterday, most aides and staff were evacuated about 10 a.m., shortly after a plane struck the Pentagon. Remaining inside the White House were Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and other top security aides, who were sequestered in an operations center on the ground floor to coordinate a response to the worst act of terrorism ever committed in the United States.

Bush heard of the first attack yesterday just before 9 a.m., after he had arrived at a Sarasota elementary school to promote his education initiative. Bush's chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., who was accompanying him, informed the president that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers.

The president, appearing unfazed, entered a classroom, introduced some of his education advisers and began taking part in a reading lesson with second-graders. A short while later, Card leaned over to the president and whispered into his ear that the second World Trade Center tower had been hit by a plane as well.

The president became visibly tense. He told the pupils they read so well that "they must be sixth-graders." Then he quickly left the classroom.

The president later emerged before an audience of 200 who had gathered at the school to hear remarks on education. Bush announced that there had been an "apparent terrorist attack on our country" and that he had to leave abruptly for Washington.

"This is a difficult moment for America," said Bush, promising "a full-scale investigation to hunt down and to find those folks who committed this act."

For Bush, less than eight months in the White House, the attacks yesterday pose a stiff test of leadership.

"This is instantly the most important national security event of [Bush's] administration by a wide margin," said Philip Zelikow, a former national security aide who served the president's father.

While the federal government has been girding for a catastrophic terrorist attack for several years, Zelikow said, nothing could prepare a White House to deal with a crisis of yesterday's scope.

"Because nothing like this has happened before," he said.

After Bush left Sarasota yesterday, his plane did not return as scheduled to Washington. Security officials kept the president's destination a secret.

During the flight, Bush conferred with Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

As Air Force One descended, fighter planes hovered over both of its wings. The plane landed at Barksdale Air Force Base outside Shreveport, La. As he descended the steps of Air Force One, Bush was surrounded by Air Force personnel carrying drawn M-16s.

On the window of the base headquarters building was paper with large type that read "Def Con Delta," the code for the highest state of military alert.

In Louisiana, Bush told reporters that he had ordered the U.S. military around the world to high-alert status.

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