Thursday, September 11, 2008

9/11 At Election Time

Normally, the pressure has been to keep partisanship to a bare minimum on this day every year.

But with this year's anniversary of 9/11 -- the seventh year since that infamous day -- falling during not one but two North American elections, 9/11 will almost certainly become a topic of some importance today.

Particularly with an American election in which no incumbent can be returned to the White House, the question of 9/11 and how another such attack can be prevented will be a pivotal issue. In 2004, voters knew first hand President George W Bush's views on how to avert terrorist attacks. In 2008, they don't have that luxury in comparing the anti-terrorism plans of John McCain and Barack Obama.

But to truly understand the events of 9/11, and truly understand how another such attack can be prevented, it's important to understand how the event unfolded in the first place.

As such, today The Nexus presents (with brief commentary) the documentary Inside 9/11: Zero Hour:

It's remarkable how ineffective pre-9/11 security was at detecting the 19 terrorists, even when a number of them were selected for additional security. The very rules set by the FAA actually facilitated the hijacking by allowing the hijackers to carry their weapons on board.

It's also disconcerting how, even after the hijacking was known, the eventual disaster was still unable to be prevented.

The FAA's inability to communicate effectively with F-15 fighter jets that had been scrambled to track American Airlines flight 11 and the literal impossibility of fighting a fire at the height in question point to the obvious ill-preparedness of the American transportation infrastructure, military and civil authorities to deal with the events of that day.

One would almost excuse ill-preparedness to deal with events previously considered almost unimaginable. But on the very day of the events in question, novelist John Grisham told CNN that he had proposed events remarkably similar to 9/11 as a national security scenario to Pentagon officials.

The events of 9/11 weren't as unthinkable as we may like to believe.

The detail with which the film portrays the events of 9/11 is shocking, but underscores the reality of the event -- and reminds us why a repeat of that catastrophe must be averted.

Confusion began to set in as the FAA and air traffic controllers literally lost track of which planes were still in the air, and which planes had already reached their target.

Particularly chilling is the deception the hijackers employed with their passengers. Knowing full well that they were all going to die upon reaching their target, one can't help but treat the deception -- and the false hope it promises -- as unnecessarily cruel.

Then again, perhaps it could be said that any hope in the heart of a suicide bomber is false hope indeed.

Part of dealing with any event such as 9/11 requires a response plan -- something evidently lacking on that date in 2001. It pains any rational person to criticize the response of emergency services -- men and women doing their jobs under extremely difficult circumstances.

But there is little question that their jobs were made unacceptably more difficult by the lack of a response plan. When building a 100-plus story building, it isn't unreasonable to expect that civil authorities will plan for a possible evacuation of that building in the event of a catastrophe -- particularly when that building has been the target of a terrorist attack before.

The lack of a realistic plan to deal with fires such as those burning in the WTC becomes immediately apparent. The film notes that the average firefighter takes an hour to climb 25 stories, meaning the firefighters being sent to fight the fires -- each carrying 100 pounds of equipment -- would take four hours to reach the fire.

The fires, meanwhile, were beginning to soften the support beams, which had been stripped of their fire-proofing by the impact of the planes.

The lost four hours could have potentially prevented the collapse of the towers -- if there were a plan in place to help get firefighters to the impact floors in a reasonable amount of time.

Only the determination and dedication of the firefighters in question served to avert further loss of life that day where disaster planning effectively failed.

The film also presents some of the smaller human tales amidst the tragedy, such as that of Usman Farman, a Muslim man who a Jewish man helped escape from the debris cloud following the WTC's collapse.

Zero Hour also imparts on the viewer the culpability of basic human hubris for the loss of life that occurred on 9/11. Individuals less fortunate than Pasqual Buzzelli who were instructed by building security to remain in their offices despite the fires raging so far above died simply because of the apparent inability of WTC security staff to comprehend the inherent mortal hazard of the situation unfolding.

Once again, a complete evacuation should have been part of any disaster response plan. That there was no evacuation is simply a tragic testament to the lack of an effective plan.

The film also briefly addresses the policy shift following the attack -- explained by talking head David Frum -- and the policy and administrative failure in the lead-up to the attack.

"We were shocked at the carnage, but we certainly weren't surprised," explains J Coffer Black, a CIA analyst.

"I don't think anyone who worked on this problem expected anything less than what happened on 9/11," explained Michael Scheuer. "If the policymakers expected anything less, than shame on them."

There's a disturbing irony in the chirping of the firefighters' electronic locators -- devices once used to find a firefighter in the midst of a blaze, instead marking their graves amidst the rubble of the World Trade Center.

Even seven years after the event, the losses on that day stagger the imagination.

The film concludes with a brief summary of the events following 9/11: the invasion of Afghanistan, the fall of Kabul, the invasion of Iraq -- basically, the rest of the story thus far. It outlines the continuing challenges of the post-9/11 world.

With elections underway in both the United States and Canada, it will be hard to keep the legacy of 9/11 separate from the political and partisan considerations at the very heart of these contests -- even if one agrees that it should be kept separate.

If the legacy of 9/11 really is to be dragged into the middle of either election -- and for the record, this author prays it won't be -- we will owe it to those lost on that day to postulate wisely on the topic, and ensure that it leads somewhere constructive.

To do anything less would trample their memories.

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