The End of a World
September 22, 2001
Note/disclaimer: The following was written 11 days after 9/11. So much of it now strikes me as wrongly conceived that I feel like scratching it out entirely. But at the moment I'm leaving it as a document of the time. This is written by someone trying to come to grips with what had happened, trying to make sense of the reports. And it reflects some of the shock of the event that made one want to find something solid to hold onto, just one thing you could trust. With millions of people doing that, there was a lot of sheeplike behavior. When I wrote this I was still giving credence to the official story that the WTC towers both fell because fires melted steel beams on one or two floors to the point that they collapsed, then those one or two floors knocked out the next floor down and the next and the next all the way to the bottom, turning the whole building to dust. This was the pancake theory, which is analogous to the magic bullet theory that made the official story of the JFK assassination seem possible. Gradually, over time when the terror faded, I learned that the pancake theory is virtually impossible. One hates to use the word "impossible", but it was about as plausible as the WTC suddenly flying away like a magic carpet, or turning into a giant ape and taking a dump on New York City. They say nothing is impossible, but the pancake theory is essentially impossible. I will say, however, that even though this essay attempted to elucidate a theory that has later proven to be untenable, I did have intuitions from the first few moments of the catastrophe that something was very wrong, much more deeply and horrifyingly wrong than that the U.S. was experiencing a terrorist attack. And I thought of the Bush/CIA mob because they are among the only ones with the power and inclination to pull off something so spectacularly vicious. Everything was so disorienting that day, it took a while to sort it out and begin to ask the right questions: foremost of which was, Where was our defense? This question I did raise at the time, but without the benefit of much of the information that has since come to light. I was still foolishly giving some credence to official sources, which had certainly never earned much credibility then, and have shattered it entirely since. So the following is a very flawed piece, but with a few valid points, and some curious aspects as a snapshot of a historic moment. Often narratives or descriptions of events, even if fundamentally skewed by a lack of understanding of essential elements of the story, can still yield evidence that may later be of value when new information emerges later. I was still at this point giving some credence to the Arab hijackers story and other principal components of the official story. I have since suspended all judgment on most of what happened that day. There are some things, however, that can be eliminated as possibilities, and the official story fits in that category. -- dc 0306
Some events change everything so utterly, that instantly it's a new world. September 11 was a day in which a world vanished in a few hours that seemed like an eternity. All political statements of the past are obsolete. The attacks stretch the extremes of the present situations so drastically, that there are now broad areas of consensus in American politics.
Americans were struck by a blow so devastating that it felt for a while as if the fundamentalists like Bin Laden who say their goal is to "destroy America" may really be able to. The world changed instantly and the reverberations have only begun. The threat of the Muslim fundamentalists to destroy America was something that could more or less be laughed off before. Even if some Americans were killed, it never felt like the attackers were capable of anything more damaging than inflicting a few casualties now and then. Suddenly Americans were humbled with a strike so horrifyingly spectacular that it was a blow to our spirit, our self-conception as a culture. And we still, as of this writing, don't know who did it.
The scale of the violence and destruction is somehow increased by the perpetrators' ingenious way of turning our proudest creations into weapons capable of destroying us. As businessmen break everything down to flows of cash, and physicists deal in a currency of energy, these people analyzed our civilization in terms of how all the energy can be released as destructive force.
All the potential explosive energy of a fuel tank of 23,980 gallons was hurled into a building with the impact of its 530 m.p.h. cruising speed in a bomb-shaped missile nearly the size of a city block, creating an explosion and fire that fractured, burned and melted the structure, causing the top to come crashing down on the bottom, ever gaining momentum and force, causing the whole thing explode with a force said to be 1/50th to 1/20th the force of the Hiroshima bomb, or 600 tons of TNT.
All the energy it takes to move a passenger vessel of 450,000 pounds through the sky across an entire continent was focused into a single explosion of destructive force, aimed in such a way that each of the two explosions could weaken the structure of the great buildings and cause them to turn in upon themselves. All the energy that was stored in those buildings in the process of building them up from the ground story by story over years was unleashed and transformed into a destructive downward force. According to the New York Times, the buildings contained more than 200,000 tons of steel, 425,000 cubic yards of concrete and 600,000 square feet of glass in 43,000 windows. Each floor was an acre of reinforced concrete on a metal deck supported by steel cross beams, weighing about 4.8 million pounds.
The old New York legend that a penny dropped from a skyscraper would develop enough force to kill a man, was illustrated not with a penny, but with thousands of tons of concrete and steel from one of the tallest, most massive, proud monuments ever created by the hand of man.
What kind of mind is this we are dealing with? What kind of murderous genius is this veiled adversary? We are encountering a force as alien and mysterious to us as snake charming, or magic carpet riding. As Asian martial arts use an opponent's own force against him, so did these mysterious adversaries use our own creations to destroy us. They saw our weaknesses and exploited them, the weaknesses in the security of air travel, the weaknesses in the structure of a great skyscraper, the weaknesses in our precariously balanced economic system, the weaknesses in our cultural value system. They laid it all bare before us in a devastating display of alien force made even more powerful by its disdain for our attachment to material objects as the source of power. They did this to us with no weapons of their own but knives.
At each point the disaster was already beyond anything anyone had ever seen in America, and it kept getting worse and more surreal and cataclysmic by what seemed to be orders of magnitude.
It was so utterly frightening that it brought everything to a standstill. The defense and intelligence establishments were caught astonishingly unprepared. Though much is known about terrorism and the dangers it presents, there were no forces ready to defend our most important centers of financial and political power and the monuments of our civilization. Though even laymen knew there are plenty of people who will give their lives to bomb us -- and who may very well have access to nuclear devices, nerve gas or other sophisticated and destructive weapons -- nothing was in place to react. Even I had read in the New York Times three weeks before the attack that Osama bin Laden had been saying he was going to unleash attacks on American targets soon. If I knew about it, why didn't the defense and intelligence establishments have a contingency plan in place to protect these obvious targets. The Trade Center had been hit once before. Where is the mystery. In the 1950s the U.S. had stations in the Arctic Circle to warn in case the Russians came over the north pole. Is it really possible that our $200-billion-a-year defense system cannot ward off 19 men with knives?
After a plane had been traveling in a bizarrely altered flight path, nothing was done, not even a warning issued. After the first plane hit at about 8:50 a.m., according to ABC News, it was said to be about 10 minutes till the second hit, and no defense had been mounted after the first hit. The Pentagon was hit at 9:38, nearly an hour after the first tower was hit and 38 minutes after the second hit, when there could be no doubt it was an attack. Still no defense had been activated. The president was taken on a rambling, diversionary course to elude an enemy the security apparatus seemed to be as mystified about as everyone else. These strange events raise very disturbing questions.
How could the world's most formidable (and vastly funded) military establishment fail so miserably in protecting the cities terrorists had vowed to attack. The Trade Center was bombed in 1993. Why was this a mystery to the men who spend their lives working in intelligence and defense? Was there no contingency plan in place to defend the two American capitals, New York and Washington? Why aren't there fighter planes on alert to protect our major targets? The nation's capital, the most restricted air space in the country was utterly unprotected.
Given that the defense establishment now has everything it ever wanted, a carte blanche for warfare, one has to wonder. Is it possible they were that incompetent?
The precision with which the whole mad operation was pulled off was in itself terrifying, the way in which they, whoever they are, destroyed without having any great weapons themselves. With just ingenuity, organization, will and the willingness to sacrifice one's own life, they pulled us down and made us more vulnerable than we ever thought we could be.
America is a naive culture. Living Americans have never seen war in mainland U.S., there hasn't been one since the Civil War, when Americans slaughtered each other. In the War of 1812 the British sacked the White House, but didn't burn it down. Then there was no military or economic might in the U.S. It was a baby country. The U.S. has considered itself impervious, or unreachable and unapproachable. Who would dare to tangle with the mightiest military force in history? Who would imagine that they could break through all that in a way that seemed to negate all our achievements as if they were nothing?
They seem to see our weak spots with a clarity we cannot. We know we have them, but we never took them seriously. We all know that someone could put plutonium in the water supply, could get a nuclear weapon and bring it into the country, or do any of thousands of other similar things. But we assign that kind of behavior to characters in James Bond or Superman films. Never have we seen a real life Dr. No.
Now our fantasy becomes reality.
East has met West with a cataclysmic crash. The astonishing power of the destructive act gave the destroyers the air of awesome power, at first. But as time goes by, it becomes clear that the explosive power of the situation is far beyond what even they could have realized, and apparently beyond what the U.S. leaders realize even now.
One hopes that the Cheney/Rumsfeld axis, that replay of the Gerald Ford administration of the early 1970s, is up to this. Clearly the attack makes a mockery of our much-vaunted military might and our massive defense budgets. The so-called "Defense Department" was always so busy with offense, it forgot about its job of defending the people. There was never a serious threat to the mainland. Even during World War II, America maintained an image of imperviousness. Presidents have been so busy deploying the military "to defend our interests overseas" -- which means the interests of certain influential businessmen -- that they never thought about really defending the American people. It was a luxury the U.S. can no longer afford.
Geopolitics is now clearly a battle of ideas, on every level. Military might in the old sense is obsolete. The Americans of the Ford administration will have to learn to live in the 21st century. Ronald Reagan is quoted as saying (reading), "The ultimate determinant in the struggle that's now going on in the world will not be bombs and rockets, but a test of wills and ideas, a trial of spiritual resolve, the values we hold, the beliefs we cherish, and the ideals to which we are dedicated."
The U.S. cannot win with brute force alone. It will be a matter of diplomacy and public relations as well as a tactical war of intelligence. This attack was a media event, which earned the U.S. some political capital on the world stage, but that capital could be quickly squandered if the U.S. response is not measured and just. And by now the administration should know it cannot go it alone in defiance of every other nation in the world. Every action is carried out on the world stage, and now even the American people will be watching. It is a perilous course.
The kind of military strength that ruled the world 25 years ago is no more effective against this adversary than the formal conduct of war by the British soldiers against American soldiers. If the administration launches a broad sweeping attack against Muslims or Arabs, it will unleash a destructive power much greater than what we have seen. Right now there is a threat to deal with. But later, it may be wise to start thinking of altering some of our policies, like the military occupation of Saudi Arabia in order to maintain a corrupt, wasteful government that oppresses its people and squanders the country's considerable resources. The U.S. will have to reconsider its support of similar governments in many other countries. In the 21st Century, Americans are going to have to learn to live in the world. The population appears to be ready to do that, but the politicians keep wanting to continue their exploits.
Now it's clear that we cannot be invulnerable, and we'll have to rethink the foreign policy that has made America so hated in many parts of the world. The brutality and injustice of American foreign policy used to be a moral issue. Now it is a matter of survival.
For George W. Bush the crisis is a political gift, an enormous opportunity. The biggest political outrage of the last year was the Republican halting of the vote count in Florida and seizing the presidency. In the weeks before the catastrophe, many problems were closing in on the administration, questions like what happened to the surplus and Bush's promise not to spend Social Security, recently amended to include "unless there is a war or recession." Now of course, as Cheney pointed out recently, we have both. Few people are raising these issues now that matters of survival are pressing.
If Tolstoy's theory is right, that great men are made by challenging times, this is Bush's time to show his stuff. He has already zoomed to 80-some percent approval ratings as commander in chief of "America's New War," which blasts constantly from banners on CNN. But it still remains to be seen if he can rise to the occasion. It is a time that demands a Roosevelt or a Churchill. But before Roosevelt was Hoover and before Churchill was Chamberlain. Whether there is a leader on the sidelines ready to emerge is unclear right now. The available options aren't too impressive at the moment.
Can George W. Bush, the heir to privilege -- who was given a plum slot in the National Guard ahead of a waiting list of 5,000 to keep him out of Vietnam and who somehow failed to show up for the last years of his obligation -- now become a credible commander in chief of the armed forces in time of crisis? It behooves us to hope so.
Calling the response to the crisis "Operation Infinite Justice" does not give encouraging signs as to how enlightened these leaders are. It is disturbing to hear Bush characterize it as a battle between good and evil and ignore the fact that the U.S. government's slaughtering of hundreds of thousands of innocent people has created massive hatred toward us and endangered American lives.
The times remain accursedly interesting.