No Smiles For A Thousand Miles

Andrew Cohen official approved photo CBS

In some ways, it is a pity that Timothy McVeigh wasn't around to see and hear about Tuesday's devastating terrorist assault. Executed three months earlier to the day, the egotistical bomber, responsible for the deaths of 168 people at the federal building in Oklahoma City, likely would have winced at the audacity and brazenness of the gang which pulled off the attack on Washington and New York. It would have made him sad.

Compared to Tuesday's acts, the bombing at the Alfred P. Murrah building seems relatively puny and pedestrian. And compared to Tuesday's hijackers and their compatriots, McVeigh and Terry Nichols were gutless, unimaginative punks.

Until Tuesday morning, we thought of the April 19, 1995 bombing as a watershed, the benchmark for monumental terrorism in this country. Now, with all due respect to the survivors and family members of victims there, 168 fatalities seems puny, too. A morbid toll surpassed by the Pentagon bombing alone or by the fatalities on board the four airplanes.

And when the World Trade Center fatalities are finally tallied up - a task which could take weeks or even months - they are likely be 50 or 100 times higher than what we saw in Oklahoma City. Or maybe even more.

The Murrah building was only nine stories high. The Twin Towers combined were 220 floors. The casualty figures are unimaginable precisely because they are so much higher than what we've seen before. They are horrifying because they force us to change the emotional context into which we placed catastrophes which have come before. When it comes to history and horror, when it comes to news and what the news means, these are the first days of the rest of our lives. It's been said before but it bears repeating; nothing will ever be the same again.

I thought of McVeigh because I was driving through Oklahoma City on my way from Houston, where I was stranded by Tuesday's devastating events. All along the Interstates, from I-45 to I-35 to I-135 to I-70, people were stunned and shocked into silence. There wasn't a single gas station I stopped at which didn't have on a television or radio. There wasn't a single clerk who wasn't bleary- and moist-eyed.

In 18 hours of travel, across over 1,000 miles, I did not see a single person smile. I did not hear a single person laugh. It's true that people in the heart of America didn't, before Tuesday, generally like New Yorkers much. But all I saw in the heartland was sorrow and sympathy and American flags. It reminded me of Stephen King's apocalyptic novel, "The Stand."

From a legal perspective, there are few things which come next. First, there is the investigation, which proceeds on two fronts. Already we know that law enforcement officials have made great strides in stringing together circumstantial pieces of information (and potential evidence) about who these terrorists were and who may have helped them.

It is extraordinary but not necessarily surprising, in fact, that the feds have gtten as far as they have in figuring out what happened. Much like McVeigh, who kept all that anti-government material in his car even as he sped away from the destruction in Oklahoma City, this week's dastardly clique left calling cards as well-- flight manuals in their rental car; airline receipts and the like. I guess terrorists like to make sure that their victims know who victimized them.

It is good that the circumstantial case is being put together in such a fashion and at such speed because the physical evidence likely will be scarce. It was well-nigh impossible at the Murrah site to uncover tangible evidence which could help investigators piece together what happened and then come into play at a subsequent trial. The physical evidence which was found-- an axle from McVeigh's bomb truck, for example-- was found almost by luck. Apart from the black boxes from the two instruments of death, the airplanes, it is almost inconceivable to me that there will be much of anything left in the rubble of the Trade Center that will be pristine enough to pass evidentiary muster in a court of law. I hope I am wrong. I fear I am not.

If there is any small consolation for investigators, if anything gives them even a remote fighting chance at getting "good" evidence from the New York site and from the Pentagon site, it is that they have, unfortunately, some expertise they can bring to bear based upon the Murrah investigation. And that expertise I'm sure reminds them that they have to be really really careful even at this early stage to ensure that the pieces of rubble they are digging through is catalogued thoroughly and secured carefully. If there is a trial from all of this, if such rubble is relevant, the time to make sure it makes it into court is now, before it gets tainted by the chaos of this event.

Apart from the investigation, there are the likely long-term legal effects from Tuesday's slaughter. Will the country's courts now universally permit racial profilling as a form of law-enforcement? Perhaps. Will the nation's ban on foreign assassinations be rescinded by the Administration or by Congress? Probably. Will the nation's anti-terrorism laws be stiffened? Absolutely, but to what extent? And to what extent will the civil liberties we all take for granted be limited? If we are indeed at a time of war, we ought to expect some degree of war measures. The attack is over. The catastrophe continues. But the legal questions have only just begun.


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