To commemorate the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, here is my column originally published September 13, 2001.
My smarter and handsomer brother was in Northern New Jersey on Tuesday looking across the water at what was for just a moment longer the single remaining tower of the World Trade Center. A cold front had passed through the night before, leaving the day startlingly clear. The carnage was easy to see even from a distance. Only the rising cloud of smoke and ash marred the sky. And then that tower, too, was gone. The magnitude of this disaster and its sister at the Pentagon in Washington is too great to ponder, so we are left wondering what we could have done to prevent it, and what we could do to keep it from happening again. I’m a longtime pilot, and a guy who used to work in the Middle East. Twenty-two years ago, I was a Fed investigating the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, so I have some experience of how governments approach disasters. It’s not pretty.
The point of terrorism is to leverage the efforts of a small group in an attempt to modify the behavior of a much larger group. I worked long ago as a reporter in Northern Ireland, and left that gig specifically because I began to feel like a pawn of the Provisional Wing of the Irish Republic Army. That 300-member organization was using my stories about their acts to influence people all over the world. I was probably just as much a pawn of the Ulster Defense League, the folks on the other side, but I didn’t want to be a pawn of anyone, so I left. The most important reaction to terrorism that a free society can show is to not give in to it.
But not giving in takes many forms, and I fear that some of the official reactions to the events of this week will take the form of effectively giving in if they also mean that we give up our freedom.
“To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” wrote Mark Twain. In the current, context this means that the organizations charged with reacting to this catastrophe will do so by doing what they have always done, only more of it. Congress, which controls the budget and passes laws, will want to pass laws and to allocate more money, lots of money, forgetting completely about any campaign promises. The military, which is the nation’s enforcer, will want to use force, if only they can find a foe. The intelligence community, which gathers information, will want to be even more energetic in that gathering, no matter what the cost to the privacy of the millions of us who aren’t thinking of terrorist acts. And agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulate, will want to create more stringent regulations. Now here is an important point to be remembered: All these parties will want to do these things WHETHER THEY ARE WARRANTED OR USEFUL OR NOT.
In 1956 two airliners collided over the Grand Canyon and the regulatory response was today’s air traffic control system. The FAA felt that by keeping most planes under positive control — telling them where to go and when — they could avoid future collisions. Yet collisions continue to happen. In 1978 a Pacific Southwest Airlines plane smashed into a small Cessna over San Diego despite the fact that both planes were flying under instrument rules and were under positive control. The FAA response that time was to carve up even more finely the sky over nearly every metropolitan area, controlling the airspace even more stringently with the intent of keeping instrument and visual traffic apart. There was no visual traffic in the San Diego accident, yet we still live with rules that arose from that accident even though those rules would not have prevented it.
So how will the FAA react this time? They will do what they have always done, pass new and stricter rules, and they will do so because it makes them feel better, not because it will actually help.
There is already a restricted area around the Pentagon where planes have never been allowed to fly, yet that didn’t stop this week’s attack. Should we make the restricted area larger? How much larger is large enough? Will we mount anti-aircraft guns atop office buildings? It won’t help. Would creating a restricted area over the World Trade Center have kept a hijacked airliner from entering that space? No, it wouldn’t. New rules will follow, and some of those rules won’t help, either.
It’s not just the government that is guilty of this over-reaction. Tuesday morning, I was speaking to eighth graders at the Pleasanton Middle School in California. The school was abuzz with news from the East Coast, but even more abuzz the next day when the kids had been through a full evening of re-run explosion footage and talking news heads instead of “That 70s Show.” I’m not saying we shouldn’t cover the news, but sometimes the extent to which we cover it creates problems of its own. There has been much made of the terrorists choosing New York as a target because it is the heart of the world financial community, but what made it an attractive target was more likely the city’s role as the very center of world media. That Peter Jennings could grab a shower at home and get right back on the air wasn’t by accident.
And I, too, am just another man with a hammer. My gig is technology, and I keep thinking there must some way to use it to prevent this kind of thing from happening again. The terrorists grabbed Boeing 757 and 767 aircraft because they are very different aircraft, yet share a single type certificate from the government. This means that the cockpits are identical. Learn to fly a 757 and you can fly a 767 too, making for a much larger pool of available aircraft with enough fuel capacity to take out the towers. But having a common type certificate also means the planes have the same autopilot systems, both of which include autolanding capability.
Why, I find myself thinking, can’t we build a system that takes over control of the autopilot, locks out flight crew and hijackers alike, and lands the plane at the first sign of trouble. Well, we could, but it opens a whole new area of vulnerability — hijacking autopilots. Forget I said anything.
So there are no answers, just more questions, and nobody is right. But we can’t give in, because to do so is to become less free, to be no longer ourselves. And above all, what defines us as Americans is our need to be ourselves.