Never Saw It Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst

By Karen A. Cerulo | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
The Breadth and Scope of Positive Asymmetry

It has been seven hours since the worst attack ever made on American
mainland soil.— Todd McDermott, news anchor for WCBS Television
New York, September 11, 2001

It is hard to dispute Todd McDermott’s characterization of the September 11 tragedy, for on that day, many contend that the United States experienced its worst hour. Even now, years after the fact, the media images are burned into our minds: common passenger planes transformed into targeted attack missiles; a peaceful, majestic skyline turned hellish with raging flame and billowing smoke; the slow, deliberate collapse of two iconic spires of trade; the faces of could-be neighbors and friends smothered in terror and despair. Clearly, the day’s events earned their status as modern America’s darkest day.

Reporters, rescue workers, and survivors alike characterized the attack as “unthinkable.” And as analyses and investigations of the event unfolded, it appears as if the September 11 strike was just that—unthinkable. The worst assault in modern American history was, in all too many ways, unanticipated.

Unanticipated … at first, the very idea seems implausible. To be sure, precedence suggested such an attack. Terrorism had struck the United States before: the World Trade Center bombing on February 26, 1993, the bombing of U.S. embassies in Africa on August 7, 1998, and the assault on the USS Cole on October 12, 2000. Recall too that U.S. soil had previously been attacked in war. Indeed in 2001, images of Pearl Harbor were fresh in our minds as we commemorated the sixtieth anniversary of the bombing.1

The summer of 2001 also brought clues to a looming catastrophe. In chapter 1, I reported that official warnings of a terrorist attack were circulât-

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