It is a war, and yet it is not. Who, after all, is the enemy? Where is his capital? For the families of Americans who have died, what would be a satisfying resolution?
Even Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who calls it war, wisely made no claim of sure and speedy conclusions when he spoke yesterday of the attacks on New York and Washington. By the end of the day, the subject of attack and counterattack had shifted into a gray area, something between the pursuit of national security and criminal justice, between combat and jurisprudence.
Military aircraft patrolled American skies and Navy warships scanned the oceans even as FBI agents in riot gear stormed a Boston hotel in search of suspects in the attacks. A man was reportedly hustled into a van and driven off. The scene resembled nothing so much as another crime story on the evening news.
So begins a process that has yet to produce a resolution in two other recent terrorist attacks on Americans, both of which occurred in the Middle East:
Seventeen American sailors died and 39 others were injured in a boat-bomb attack on the destroyer USS Cole in the port of Aden, Yemen, on Oct. 12; 19 servicemen were killed and 372 others wounded in a truck-bomb blast at the Khobar Towers apartment complex in Saudi Arabia on June 25, 1996.
In those cases, as in Tuesday's hijacking attacks, the name of Osama bin Laden, who was indicted in the United States in the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, was mentioned. Both remain open cases, the investigations of each marked by lack of cooperation between nations and agencies.
Just yesterday, 12 agents of the FBI and the State Department investigating the Cole attack left Yemen for undisclosed reasons. The group had just returned to Yemen last month, after withdrawing in June amid mounting concerns about its safety and a sideshow feud with the State Department over the decision to leave.
As the FBI was leaving Yemen in June, putting the Cole investigation into suspension, the United States was bringing criminal charges in the Khobar Towers case. The indictments against 14 people, including 13 Saudi Arabian citizens, riled the Saudi government, which saw the move as an attempt to bypass the Saudi legal system. This created problems for Powell, who was trying to encourage Saudi diplomatic help in ending violence between Palestinians and Israelis.
"The Americans never informed us or coordinated with us on this issue," Saudi Arabia's interior minister, Prince Nayif ibn Abdulaziz, was quoted as saying at the time.
Iran, too, was displeased by the Khobar Towers indictments because they mentioned the involvement of "then-members of the Iranian government" without identifying or charging any individuals. Saudi Arabia was unhappy about the prospect that the indictments would chill its relations with Iran, which had denied involvement in the bombing.
Khobar Towers suspects
The 14 Khobar Towers suspects were accused of playing a role in a night attack against a housing complex where American, British and French troops live. There had been warnings of possible attacks on Americans, but a passenger car and a large fuel tank truck were able to pull up to a perimeter fence about 10 p.m. A man was seen running from the truck and jumping into the car, which sped off. Within minutes a blast ripped off the face the building and dug an enormous crater in the ground.
The indictments came three years after Saudi and American officials argued over whether the investigation was over - the Saudis said in 1998 that they considered it completed, the Americans strongly disagreed - and over allegations that the Saudis failed to share information.
More than five years after the blast, there have been no trials, no convictions.
The Cole attack
In the Cole attack, eight people were arrested in June, which the United States considered premature action. The Yemen investigation has been marked by friction between the two governments and arguments over what Americans considered Yemeni attempts to close the case too soon.
Late last month, senior FBI officials accused the Yemen government of blocking their efforts to expand the scope of the investigation to include militant Islamic groups in Yemen. The Yemenis said that line of questioning would threaten their nation's sovereignty because it involved strictly domestic matters.
The FBI was pursuing a possible connection between the Cole attack and bin Laden and a clearer understanding of the terrorist network that supported the men who attacked the Cole - in other words, a pursuit of the "war" to which Powell has referred. But it is a "war" conducted partly in the manner of an international criminal investigation.
American sailors were killed when a motorized skiff pulled alongside the destroyer. Two men aboard casually waved to sailors standing watch on the Cole deck. The sailors waved back. No one was alarmed by the presence of the small boat. Some of the Americans apparently assumed it was part of a flotilla that earlier had helped the Cole moor to a refueling station.
"They went putt-putt along the side and then lit up," an American official who had read witness accounts said at the time.
Within a few feet of the hull, the skiff exploded with tremendous force.
In June, a videotape seen by a reporter in Kuwait City showed followers of bin Laden training in the al Farouq camp in Afghanistan, singing about blowing up the Cole. Bin Laden is seen in the tape reciting a poem of sorts that apparently refers to the Cole attack without mentioning the ship by name.
The tape suggests a bin Laden connection, but it's a link that the FBI has been unable to pursue. The eight Yemini suspects are under arrest, but the American investigators consider these men minor figures in a bigger story that has in the last 72 hours expanded to the scope of war.
Usually, the promise of "justice" suggests indictments, a trial before an impartial judge and jury, testimony under oath and - at last - conviction and punishment.
But the suspect - the "enemy" - is still at large.