9.00am – In the past few hours the world has witnessed events in the United States that will have profound consequences for years to come.
A perilous military and diplomatic situation now exists. The hijackings and suicide attacks of four aircraft on the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington are being described as a declaration of war and akin to Pearl Harbour. There is no question that these attacks on the world’s most powerful military and economic nation will usher in a period of tension unknown since the darkest moments of the Cold War.
For those of us who have spent most of the night unable to sleep and riveted by the scenes of horror on our television screens, the realisation of the magnitude of these events is only just beginning to take hold.
The US has placed its military forces on “threatcon delta” alert. Earlier it was reported that a “continuation of government” plan was put into action. In the hours following the attacks the whereabouts of President George W. Bush was unknown as the government reacted to what was clearly a co-ordinated series of attacks. Instead of returning immediately to the White House from Florida, Bush was taken to an air-force base in Louisiana. There he made a statement pledging that the US would hunt down and punish the perpetrators of the attacks.
There have been attacks in the past few hours on Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, but it is now reported that these were not initiated by the US.
Australia’s prime minister, John Howard, remains in Washington, reportedly in the Australian Embassy. All aircraft travel has been halted until 2am tomorrow, Australian time, but it is most likely that he will return as soon as possible.
As I write, the House Speaker, Denis Hastert, is making a public statement on the steps of the Capitol building in Washington. Flanked by Republicans and Democrats alike, Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle pledged united action against what both men described as “evil”. The Senate will resume sittings tomorrow.
In the past half hour members of the Bush Cabinet have spoken to the media at the White House. It is early evening US time and the tableau of political unity continues with members of Congress singing God Bless America on the steps of the Capitol.
There are now television pictures of fire still raging at the Pentagon, the home of the US Defence Department. There is a mighty symbolism of a blazing Pentagon.
The political ramifications of this terrorism will alter the way the political game is played in the United States. Already some commentators are talking of Bush seeking an increase in the Defence budget from the Congress. The dominant domestic imperative of securing the social security budget into the future will now be tested. The so-called “social security lock box”, the use of budget surpluses for social security for an ageing population, may not be so tightly locked now.
In Australia, it is now possible that the dynamics of the federal election will change. Whilst difficult to prove, it is often argued that the re-election of the Menzies government one week after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963 was secured by the alarm that followed his death.
The reaction of the Australian electorate following the recent controversy over the Tampa asylum seekers will be intriguing to watch in the aftermath of the American disaster.