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The Power of Suicide
An Essay by NPR's Daniel Schorr

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Daniel Schorr
Daniel Schorr

Oct. 3, 2001 -- Mohamed Atta, believed to have piloted the first airliner into the World Trade Center, left behind a hand-written document. It told the prospective suicide hijackers, "You will be entering paradise. You will be entering the happiest life, everlasting life."

Over some five years, the federal government spent millions annually on exercises and drills preparing for terrorist attack. About two-thirds of them involve chemical, biological and nuclear attack. One Pentagon study explored how national landmarks could be bombed from the air. One mentioned the World Trade Center as a possible target.

But none focused on the threat of the zealot courting his own death -- this, despite the fact that several of the most lethal attacks on Americans have been suicide bombings. In 1983, a car bomber blew up the American Embassy in Beirut, killing 17 Americans, and another bombed the US Marine barracks, killing 241. Last October, a suicide bombing killed 17 sailors aboard the USS Cole in the port of Aden. As recently as September 13th, Belgian police arrested a Tunisian charged with planning to enter the American Embassy in Paris with explosives strapped around his waist.

"Interviews with top officials reflect how little the Bush administration was prepared for the nature of the attack on September 11th."

Daniel Schorr

Israel has been long aware of the menace of the suicide bomber. On Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's last visit to Washington in 1995, he said at breakfast with journalists that the suicide bomber was the one form of terrorism to which Israel had found no answer.

Interviews with top officials reflect how little the Bush administration was prepared for the nature of the attack on September 11th. Vice President Dick Cheney told NBC the government had information that a big operation was planned, but never learned what it would be. Secretary of State Colin Powell told The New York Times that early in the summer there were many signs that something was going on, but no warning of what actually would happen.

"Only those who know the reward of life after death will be seeking death," wrote Mohamed Atta, to spur the hijackers on. Now America's counterterrorism experts are preoccupied with the menace of the suicidal terrorist.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst for NPR.