Another date which will live in infamy...

For the past four years of September 11th anniversaries, I have generally avoided the emotional stories. The touching personal dramas on television that recount that clear Tuesday morning. I think it's because the experience was so emotionally difficult the first time around that I don't want to force myself to deal with those emotions a second time around.

Instead, I watch the History Channel or the Discovery Channel and learn about any number of different things about the events of that day: How the architecture of the towers absorbed the power of passenger planes slamming into them, how the fuel from the planes ultimately caused the towers to collapse, how the New York subway system avoided flooding when the retaining walls of the towers began to fail. I think, by concentrating on those events from the left side of the brain, it helps me to avoid all the emotional baggage on the right side.

Today, I watched a special on the 9/11 Commission Report on the History Channel. And it highlighted portions of the report (which you can read more about by clicking on the link to the left). But there are some portions of the report and the documentaries I saw that bear noting, some of which were interesting, but most of which were quite disturbing:

  • The plane that went into the Pentagon was initially intended for the White House. Bin Laudin himself wanted to hit the White House, but when the hijackers couldn't locate the White House from the air, they directed the plane into the Pentagon on the other side of the Potomac in Arlington, Virginia.
  • The plane that went down in Pennsylvania was intended to hit the Capitol. While the loss of life would have been horrible, and the idea of not having that beautiful rotunda there would have been hard to comprehend, also disturbing is that Congress was in session on September 11th, 2001. So those brave passengers not only saved countless lives by sacrificing themselves, but, in a very real way, they saved our government, our democracy, and our way of life.
  • The Twin Towers actually resisted the impact of the two planes that slammed into them, as they were originally intended to do (although the largest plane at the time of the towers' construction was considerably smaller). However, the speed of the impact literally blew the fire resistance material off the metal in the towers and the burning fuel became so hot that it ultimately melted the metal of the buildings, causing them to collapse.
  • The impact of Flight 11 into tower 1 took out the elevator shafts and stairwells. So while many of the responders were focused on saving the people at the impact site and above, there was no way for those people to be saved in tower 1, so response would have been better focused on saving people in tower 1 below the crash site.
  • The impact of the plane into tower 2, however, did not take out all of the elevator shafts and stairwells, because the impact was in the corner of the building, not the center. However, information could not be communicated effectively and many people did not know that Stairwell Shaft A was available, leaving it considerably unused.
  • Firedrills in the WTC only required people to leave their offices and move towards the center of the building, so many people in the towers had never actually used the stairs before. While this may not initially seem to be a problem, the stairs were not uniform throughout and when the shafts were black with soot and smoke and electricity was out, the failure to practice leaving the building through the stairwells likely cost a number of people their lives.
  • Police and fire radios did not work properly in the WTC and there were so many different communication systems among first responders that it was entirely futile to attempt to communicate a single order because there was no way for all first responders to receive it.
  • The 19 hijackers entered the airport security system with little, if any, resistance. Although some of them actually set off metal detectors, some security officials allowed them onto the planes without assessing the reason the hijackers set off the detectors. Basically, to paraphrase one member of the 9/11 Commission, the hijacker could have had an AK-47 in his pants and security would have still let him through.
  • The planes scrambled to defend Washington, DC went over water into the Atlantic Ocean to defend the city. Because no one told the pilots that the threat was from civilian aircraft being used as missiles, the pilots assumed that they were defending the country from a Russian missile attack and went into the ocean to intercept the missiles. However, even if the planes were over Washington, it would have made little difference. The pilots were not made aware that Vice President Cheney had issued an order (from a secured bunker under ground) to down any civilian aircraft approaching Washington. Of course, the Vice President asserted that this order was made as a result of discussions with President Bush. However, President Bush, who was then on Air Force One was having difficulty communicating with anyone because Air Force One's communications systems were not working properly. (Whether the Vice President was acting without authority, because only the President can issue such an order, remains a debatable question, but there is little doubt that on September 11, 2001 the United States Government was acting after being decapitated.)
  • CIA translators provided severely flawed translations of classified documents from Arabic on regular occasions, and when an employee raised issue with the inaccurate translations, she was disciplined. When she raised issue with her discipline to those higher up the chain, she was fired. Her complaints may not have mattered because many CIA translators told her statements to the effect that, "America is getting what they deserve" or "Now America is going to see a little of what it dished out." Remember, the accuracy of a CIA translation can make the difference between actionable intelligence and an innocuous statement.

As a result of the failures of the communication, the failures in our security apparatus, and widespread systemic problems, the 9/11 Commission offered a series of recommendations to better prepare us for another terrorist attack, including, among many others, a centralized intelligence apparatus under a single Cabinet authority Intelligence Director, increased intelligence and counterterrorism Congressional oversight, disclosure of the amount of national security funding, and an information age revolution for intelligence and counterterrorism agencies. The vast majority of the recommendations made by the 9/11 Commission remain unaddressed to this day.

We should remember September 11, 2001, always.

But it's long past time for us to fix the problems that were exploited on September 11, 2001.

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