How Could This Happen? (Sept. 19, 2001)

Upon hearing the news about the World Trade Center disaster last week, someone said to me, “How could this happen?” I thought it was a good question and that I should probably try to come up with an answer.

After thinking about it, I decided the first question was, How could it happen that someone could smuggle a weapon on board a commercial airliner, past our nation’s highly attentive and diligent airport security guards?

They were saying on the tube that the terrorist plan was so sophisticated that it would surely take someone from a place like Afghanistan to figure it out, and that made me wonder how it could happen that they got so smart over there, when I always thought of them as tactical morons who never would have learned how to defeat the Russians in the 1980s without the aid of our military advisors. And how could they possibly fund this kind of terrorist enterprise, when Afghanistan is one of the few Islamic states not awash in oil dollars?

I was also curious how terrorists could fly a jet into a building the size of the World Trade Center, and how could we expect that they would target that particular set of buildings again, when everybody knows they failed the last time they tried to blow it up. Especially since we had learned from that previous experience and were no longer sentencing tens of thousands of people to work in a big, splashy monument into which there would be no realistic access by police, fire, and medical personnel in the event of an emergency.  Whatever the standards may be in the Third World countries from which these terrorists hailed, we here in America care more than that about the people who work in our office buildings and factories.

Further, having read that article in Foreign Affairs a few years ago, which explained that a dolt in a Cessna might be able to take out a quarter-million urbanites with a judicious scattering of anthrax spores on a moonlit night, I found myself asking how we could ever have anticipated that they would use a Boeing jet instead of a Piper Cub.  Who could imagine that terrorists might gain access to commercial jets? It also occurred to me that maybe we had erred in spending so much time preparing for the anthrax type of attack.  In short, even if someone says we were forewarned, we weren’t exactly forewarned about this.

Speaking of previous tries, the question on my mind was how the terrorists who killed themselves on Sept. 11 could so obviously fail to recognize that our law enforcement agents would eventually track down and convict the perpetrators. Hadn’t they noticed that we went through a period of national mourning when one or two guys with a simple truck bomb killed 168 people? How could these terrorists not realize that America would be extremely upset by such an incident?

Finally, I wondered how anyone could ever become so angry that they would kill thousands in order to make their point.  Yes, they have their grievances over there in Palestine or Iran or wherever these people are from.  But this was extreme. Why can’t they present their cases in court?  Why can’t they develop democratic governments that will influence world events in appropriate ways, as our ancestors were able to do so?

Whatever the reasons, if there’s one thing that the terrorists of the world should have taken away from the Tim McVeigh episode, it’s that we do not waste our time trying to understand terrorists.  In that sense, I guess the answer to the question of how this could happen is, we don’t really know.  But maybe this experience will give us a clue.

(This item was previously posted in my ideas blog.)

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