The World Trade Center, a perspective from afar

by P.R.Banks

I awoke on the 12th of September [1] to find the United States of America had been subjected to a massive terrorist attack. The World Trade Centre's two main buildings had already collapsed and everybody was in confusion about the hows and whys of it.

Five days later we are all still in confusion about it all - now more about the implications of it.

We know the how, hijack a fully laden with fuel plane and then be committed enough to your cause to ram it at speed into important targets. Quick hand cuff equations tell me that something like 5.85 million Newtowns of energy were released into each building from the kinetic energy alone. Those calculations are assuming a plane with only a half load of fuel flying at stall speed. Something that assuredly these planes weren't. To put that into perspective the energy released was like 210 odd car crashes of a one metric tonne car slamming into a wall from 100 km/hr, all of them occuring at once and into the same building.

What makes the how worse isn't the fact that the planes were undoubtedly more heavily laden then I estimated and certainly moving faster, or even that the aviation fuel burning hastened the structural failiure and collapse of the buildings. No, what makes this worse was how simple and obvious the plan was. By it's very nature a plane has to be a fast moving bomb. We had forgotten that and become complacent about it. After the rash of hijackings in the sixties to seventies things had settled down. The Lockerbie bombing was able to be discounted as a one off singular thing. We had gone back to thinking air travel was safe and in many ways we were and are still right in thinking that.

Expressed in terms of the number of flights worldwide then even with with these attacks air travel is still statistically safer than driving on the road. Something many people around the world do routinely and don't bat an eyelid about. This is the first thing we have to remember with these sorts of attacks - the real danger in them usually isn't directly to the vast majority of people. The real danger is loss of perspective and personalisation of these attacks. People will hang back from flying for fear of being involved with another incident. Yet even on the fateful day as something like 4000 planes shuffled across the U.S. skies then your chances of being involved weren't high. It is an unlucky 0.1% of air travellers who were directly harmed even on the day matters were at their worst. Likewise in New York - a population centre that has about 17.5 million people in it. Of that some 2000 were injured and somewhere around 5000 have died. Even allowing for that figure to quadruple you can see that percentage wise this attack did not directly hurt or kill that many people.

But this attack, like all terrorist attacks, isn't directly about killing people. Certainly a high casualty count is good as far as the terrorists are concerned but the real target is the morale and will of the people targetted. The aim is to cow people into either leaving an area or changing their behaviors and habits. Here I think a great mis-calculation has been made.

Unlike the Oklahoma bombing the signs are all pointing towards a foreign to the US group performing this action. With Vietnam the US could have it's will broken because it was handed that conflict and, most importantly, the war was so far away. The U.S. has long had a history of insularity and it is perfectly understandable - the country they live in is so vast and comprehensive in it's features that the U.S. really doesn't have terribly many reasons for looking beyond it's borders. With Vietnam the question could and was legitmately asked - why are we bothering with this seemingly intractable conflict which is so far away from home? But this time the conflict isn't in some far away land. It is directly at home and the terrorists have, by the very nature of what they do, made this personal.

Say what you like about the citizens of the U.S. there is one thing they do have in abundance - a high degree of patriotism and love of their country. By attacking the U.S. on it's home soil the terrorists have made their cause not about their homeland and the U.S. presence there. Instead for the majority of Americans they have made the issue about safety in their own country. Just like the Japanese in World War II these terrorists have riled a giant that was probably better left sleeping. Yamamoto realised that the attack on Pearl Harbour was going to be a short-term victory at best. I wonder if the terrorists have realised the same?

Not only have they made this a personal thing but they have given the U.S. it's battle scars. No longer can people accuse the U.S. of being totally naieve about the effects of terrorist acts. No longer can they claim the high ground of being the suffering people - the U.S. can now legitimately claim it suffers too. It now has the political mandate to work very openly against terrorists and a surprising number of the worlds leaders could easily be labelled that. Congress is even talking about lifting the restriction on CIA assassination attempts. Is it any wonder that Yassir Arafat was looking terrified? If any hint of this attack traces back to him then the chances of the Palestinians reaching any form of peace with Israel is going to be virtually nil for the next twenty years.

Even if no hint leads back he had to be worried that the U.S. would react indescriminately and lash back at anyone and everyone they consider a terrorist. Their definition might be very wide as they take the chance to act while they have the political justification for it. Indeed the plan seems to be to let people think that this is exactly what they will do. The sabre rattling of direct military force though has been tempered with reminders of the economic aid the U.S. provides. It is clear whatever action the U.S. is taking isn't going to be about force primarily. My pick is that there will be some high profile strikes against training camps and similar facilities but that the military action will stop there. They seem to be doing the smart thing and using this attack to galvanise world opinion into doing something in a concerted fashion about terrorism in general - which is the only way you will ever stamp it out.

Good on them, it is a trait of the Americans that when they do something many times they don't just do it for themselves but they try to do something for the world in general. Often that is labelled as cultural imperialism or arrogance on their part, the US publicly claims it is out of pure altruism. As always the truth lies between those two extremes and while such acts are often motivated by self-interest I do feel they genuinely mean well for humanity most of the time.

The other thing that has amazed me watching this unfold is how much worse it could have been. Imagine if the towers had toppled to one side rather than more pancaking down? That this attack cost so few lives can be directly attributed to the architects, designers and builders of World Trade Centre. [2] Congratulations people - you designed and built a tough building that stood long enough to give many people a chance to survive that otherwise would have perished. Also the firefighters who charged in, they have been correctly hailed as heroic people who again saved lives.

Finally there have to be a few thoughts on the implications of this attack for hijackings in the future. It now becomes much more important for the passengers to resist - after all how do you know you aren't going to be used in a suicide run like this? You would only have a terrorist's word to the contrary. Something that is inherently untrustworthy. Secondly do we now institute a policy of routinely shooting down any plane that deviates from course too far or is known to be hijacked? It is something the Israelies did a while back and it was tested once after that. Since then hijacking has not been an issue. Does the rest of the world need to demonstrate the same resolve?

And does the likelyhood of these changes in attitude to hijacking mean that terrorism is no longer going to be about hostages and relatively, by comparison, bloodless acts? Or is it now going to become exclusively about killing? I have to question the wisdom and thought these terrorists put into their acts. The effects of this attack seem to be almost entirely detrimental to whatever cause prompted this.

Certainly this event is going to change the way the world does things. I just hope that it changes things for the better.

[1] Timezone differences come into account here. Being +12 GMT we were well into the next day when the attacks occured, at something like 1 am our time. By the time most of New Zealand had begun to rise for the next day then the worst of it was over. Instead we were well into the process of picking up the pieces and dealing with the results.

[2] There was one snippet from the designers that makes more sense of the people who fell out the windows of the building from above where the planes hit. The Jerusalem Post Radio website has an audio interview with one of the building designers who mentioned that the building had been designed to seal itself off in the event of fire so that the fire would be contained to specific floors and not get a chance to spread. He specifically mentions that the stairwells and all major ducts or shafts would have sealed. Trapping the people above the impact on their floors irrespective of whether the stairwells or liftshafts had survived.

Indeed damaged floors would have sealed off as well - effectively triaging those sections of the building for the safety of the whole building. The conditions for anyone who survived the initial impact on those floors scarcely bears thinking about.

Philip R. Banks
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