FOR THE PAST YEAR, we have spoken unceasingly about the events of Sept. 11. But one aspect of that day has not yet been the topic of open discussion: the difficulty we had as a country defending ourselves. As it happened, the only successful defense was carried out not by our professional defense apparatus but by the passengers on Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania. The purpose of this essay is to examine the failures of Sept. 11, and the one success, and ask if they suggest that something in our defense arrangements needs to be changed.
The difficulty of defense on Sept. 11 turned in large part on the rapid pace of events. But as we look carefully at the timelines and timetables of that day, it is crucial to recall that the word ''speed'' did not surface for the first time on Sept. 11. It has in fact been at the center of discussions of national defense for the last 50 years. Throughout this period, the heart of our defense has been a vast missile system all parts of which are described as going into effect in ''a matter of minutes'': a presidential decision must be made in ''a matter of minutes''; the presidential order must be transmitted in ''a matter of minutes''; the speed of the missile launch must be carried out ''in a matter of minutes''; and the missile must reach its target in ''a matter of minutes.'' The matter-of-minutes claim is sometimes folded into the names of our weapons (as in the Minuteman missile) and other times appears in related banner words such as ''supersonic'' and ''hair-trigger.''
The notion of ''speed'' has shaped not only our descriptions of our national defense policy but also our justifications of it. Since World War II, the constitutionally required declaration of war has been regularly bypassed. This bypassing has been licensed by the existence of nuclear weapons and by the country's doctrine of presidential first use, which permits the president, acting alone, to initiate nuclear war. Since the president has genocidal injuring power at his personal disposal, obtaining Congress's permission for much lesser acts of injuring (as in conventional wars) has often struck presidents as a needless bother.
The most frequent argument used to excuse the setting aside of the Constitution is that the pace of modern life and technology simply does not allow time for obtaining the authorization of Congress, let alone the full citizenry. Our ancestors who designed the Constitution - so the argument goes - simply had no picture of the supersonic speed at which the country's defense would need to take place. So the congressional requirement is an anachronism. With planes and weapons traveling faster than sound, what sense does it make to have a lot of sentences we have no time to hear?
One of the many revelations that occurred on Sept. 11 was a revelation about our capacity to act quickly. Speed - the realpolitik that has excused the setting aside of the law for 50 years - turns out not to have been very real at all.
American Airlines Flight 77
American Airlines Flight 77 was originally scheduled to fly from Washington to Los Angeles. The plane approached the Pentagon at the speed of 500 miles per hour. Two million square feet of the building were damaged or destroyed. One hundred and eighty-nine people died - 64 on the plane, 125 working in the Pentagon. Many others were badly injured.
While we continue to lament the deaths and injuries, one key fact needs to be held onto and stated in a clear sentence: On Sept. 11, the Pentagon could not defend the Pentagon, let alone the rest of the country.
By most measures, the US military had precious little time to respond on Sept. 11. But by the standards of speed that have been used to justify setting aside constitutional guarantees, the US military on Sept. 11 had a luxurious amount of time to protect the Pentagon. They had more than minutes. The plane that took the Pentagon by surprise could not be stopped despite a one-hour-and-21-minute warning that multiple planes had been hijacked, despite a 58-minute warning that the hijackers intended to maximize the number of casualties, despite a 55-minute warning that Flight 77 might possibly be a hijacked flight, and despite a 20-minute warning that Flight 77 was certainly a hijacked flight. The pilots of the F-15s and F-16s that flew on Sept. 11 made no mistakes, displayed no inadequacies, and showed no lack of courage: But what they tried to do now appears to have been impossible.
There are profoundly clear reasons why the military could not easily intercept the plane. But it should be noted that each of those reasons has counterparts in our longstanding military arrangements - arrangements that should now be subjected to rigorous questioning. First: Flight 77's path was hard to track since its transponder had been turned off. Yes, but so, too, any missiles fired on the United States or its allies will surely be traveling without a transponder. Second, the fact that Flight 77's radio was not working couldn't be taken as a decisive sign that it was a hijacked plane since at least 11 other planes in US airspace at the time had radios that weren't working. Yes, but with missile defense there are likely to be not 11 but hundreds of decoys and false targets that will have to be nimbly sorted through.
A third crucial explanation for the failure to protect the Pentagon is that the US military cannot shoot down a passenger plane by arrogating to itself the right to decide whether the lives on board can be sacrificed to avert the possibility of even more lives being lost on the ground. Yes, that is true - and yet for decades we have spoken about actions that directly imperil the full American citizenry without ever obtaining the American citizenry's consent to those actions.
United Airlines Flight 93
United Airlines Flight 93 was a small piece of American territory that was lost to the country for approximately 40 minutes when terrorists seized control. It was restored to the country when civilian passengers who became citizen-soldiers regained control of the ground - in the process losing their own lives.
Why were the passengers able to act? On Sept. 11, United Flight 93 was like a small legislative assembly or town meeting. In approximately 23 minutes, the passengers were able collectively to move through the following sequence of steps:
- Identify the location throughout the plane of all hijackers and how many people each is holding. We know that passengers registered this information in detail because they voiced the information to people they spoke with by phone.
- Hear from sources outside the plane the story of the World Trade Center. This information was key. It indicated to the passengers that they would almost certainly not be making a safe landing; it also indicated that many people on the ground would suffer death or injury from their plane.
- Verify the World Trade Center story f rom multiple sources outside the plane. Jeremy Glick, for example, told his wife that the account of the World Trade Center was circulating among the passengers. He explicitly asked her, ''Is it true?''
- Consult with each other and with friends outside the plane about the appropriate action. Glick told his family the passengers were developing a plan ''to rush'' the hijackers and he asked their advice; Todd Beamer told Lisa Jefferson, a Verizon supervisor, that the passengers would ''take'' the terrorists (she cautioned: ''Are you sure that's what you want to do?''); Tom Burnett told his wife a group of passengers ''is going to do something'' (she urged him to lie low and not make himself visible); flight attendant Sandy Bradshaw told her husband she was at that moment filling coffee pots with boiling water that she planned to throw at the hijackers; and she asked if he had a better plan (he told her she had the best plan and to go ahead).
- Take a vote. Glick described the voting process to his wife as it was underway.
- Prepare themselves for taking a dire action that may result in death. CeeCee Lyles, unable to reach her husband, left on the phone a recording of herself praying, then later reached him and prayed with him; Burnett asked his wife to pray while he and others on the plane acted; Beamer and Jefferson together recited the Twenty-Third Psalm.
- Take leave of people they love. Each of the passengers who was in conversation with a family member stated aloud his or her love for the listener. The family members reciprocated: ''I've got my arms around you,'' Elizabeth Wainio's stepmother told her.
- Act. Many passengers described the plan to enter the cockpit by force. Not every passenger assumed death was certain. Glick left his phone off the hook, telling his wife, ''Hold the phone. I'll be back.'' Beamer also left the phone line open - either because he expected to come back, or as an act of public record keeping. The two open lines permitted members of the Glick household and Jefferson to overhear the cries and shouts that followed, indicating that action was being taken. Lyles, still on the phone with her husband, cried, ''They're doing it! They're doing it!'' Confirmation is also provided by Bradshaw's sudden final words to her husband: ''Everyone's running to first class. I've got to go. Bye.''
It may be worth taking note of the fact that the hijackers themselves correctly foresaw that the threat to their mission would come from the passengers and not from a military source external to the plane. The terrorists left behind them multiple copies of a manual, five pages in Arabic. The manual does not tell the terrorists what to do if an F-15 or F-16 approaches the planes they have seized. It instead gives elaborate instruction on what to do if passengers offer resistance. We should not ordinarily let ourselves be schooled by terrorists. But terrorists who seek to carry out a mission successfully have to know what the greatest threat to their mission will be.
A citizens' defense?
When the plane that hit the Pentagon and the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania are looked at side by side, they reveal two different conceptions of national defense: one model is authoritarian, centralized, top down; the other is distributed and egalitarian and accords with what the Framers of the Constitution expected of the citizenry.
When the US Constitution was completed it had two provisions for ensuring that decisions about war-making were distributed rather than concentrated. The first was the provision for a congressional declaration of war - following an open debate in both the House and the Senate involving what would today be 535 men and women. The second was a major clause of the Bill of Rights - the Second Amendment right to bear arms - that rejected a standing executive army (an army at the personal disposal of president or king) in favor of a well-regulated militia, a citizens' army distributed across all ages, geography, and social class of men. Democracy, it was argued, was impossible without a distributed militia: self-governance was perceived to be logically impossible without self-defense (exactly what do you ''self-govern'' if you have ceded the governing of your own body and life to someone else?).
To date, this egalitarian model of defense is the only one that has worked against aerial terrorism on American soil. It worked on Sept. 11 when passengers brought down the plane in Pennsylvania. It again worked on Dec. 22, 2001, when passengers and crew on an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami prevented an apparent terrorist (now called ''the shoe bomber'') from blowing up the plane with plastic explosives. The danger itself was averted not by the fighter jets that accompanied the plane to Boston or the FBI agents who later rushed aboard but by men and women inside the plane who restrained the 6-foot-4-inch man using his own hair, leather belts, earphone wires, and sedatives injected by two physicians on board.
When a passenger plane is seized by a terrorist, defense from the outside appears to be structurally implausible from the perspective of time. Fighter jets were unable to intercept the Pentagon-bound plane, as they were also unable to intercept the small plane in Florida whose pilot intentionally hit a skyscraper in January, and unable to intercept the plane that in June accidentally entered forbidden airspace in Washington. Just as crucially, defense from the outside is structurally impossible from the perspective of consent. There is no case in war where a soldier is authorized to kill 200 fellow soldiers; how can an airman be authorized to kill 200 fellow citizens? During the seven months that F-15s and F-16s, armed with air-to-air missiles, flew round the clock over New York and Washington, what instructions did they have in the event that a passenger plane was seized? What instructions do they now have for their more intermittent flights? Are such instructions something only high-ranking officials should be privy to, or might this be something that should be candidly discussed in public?
Since Sept. 11 we have witnessed many actions taken in the name of homeland defense that are independent of, or external to, civilian control. According to the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, the federal agency called the National Communications System has ''proposed that government officials be able to take over the wireless networks used by cellular telephones in the event of an emergency,'' thereby preempting the very form of defense that did work (the citizenry) and giving their tools to the form of defense that did not work (the government).
The dangerous reliance on a centralized defense is nowhere so clear as in nuclear weapons. Europeans often refer to nuclear weapons as ''monarchic weapons'' precisely because they are wholly external to any powers of consent or dissent exercised by the population. In the long run, the return to an egalitarian model of national defense will require the return to a military that uses only conventional weapons. This will involve a tremendous cost: It will almost certainly, for example, mean the return of a draft. But a draft means that a president cannot carry out a war without going through the citizenry, and going through the citizenry means that the arguments for going to war get tested tens of thousands of times before the killing starts.
It is with good reason that we have worked to prevent nuclear proliferation throughout the world, along with the spread of biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction. But in the long run other countries will only agree to abstain from acquiring nuclear weapons, or to give them up, when and if the United States agrees to give them up. The real process of persuading Iraq, China, North Korea, India, Pakistan, as well as our immediate allies, to give them up will commence on the day we agree to restore within our own country a democratic form of self-defense.
Elaine Scarry, who teaches at Harvard, is the author of 'The Body in Pain' as well as articles on war and the social contract.
Submitted By Joe Liberty, thru BATR's Yahoo Group