Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Remembering the Legacy of 9/11


     Who doesn’t recall the centuries-old rhyming proverb that portrays how one small item can touch off a chain of reactions with serious consequences?

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

     In the welter of articles about the horror of 9/11, one fact has been overlooked: The doors to the passengers’ toilets on the hijacked airliners were sturdier and more impregnable than the door to the pilots’ compartments. .One has to wonder what the designers of the planes’ interiors were thinking.
     On this, the tenth anniversary of the horror of 9/11, it is even more disquieting to speculate what would have been the outcome if the flimsy doors to the pilots’ compartments on four commercial jet airliners had been as sturdy and impregnable as the doors to the planes’ passenger toilets.

A Fateful Morning
On Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, nineteen mostly Saudi-born terrorists took control of four commercial airliners en route to San Francisco and Los Angeles from Boston, Newark, and Washington. Planes with long flights were intentionally selected for hijacking because they would be heavily fueled. Two of the airliners, American Flight 11 and United Flight 175, were intentionally crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, killing everyone on board and thousands working in or visiting the buildings.
Both towers collapsed, destroying or damaging nearby buildings. A third airliner, American Flight 77, was crashed into the Pentagon. The fourth plane, United Flight 93, crashed in a field in rural Pennsylvania after passengers attempted to retake control of the airliner.
Casualties totaled 2,996, including the 19 hijackers and 2,977 victims, distributed as follows: 246 on the four planes (from which there were no survivors), 2,606 in New York City in the towers and on the ground, and 125 at the Pentagon. All who died in the attacks were civilians except for 55 military personnel killed in the Pentagon attack.
Among the 2,753 victims who died in the attacks on the World Trade Center were 343 New York City firefighters and 60 police officers from the City’s and the Port Authority’s police departments, plus eight emergency medical technicians and paramedics. Another 184 people were killed in the attack on the Pentagon. The majority of casualties were civilians, including nationals of over 70 countries. 
A total of 1,366 people at or above the point of impact in the North Tower were trapped and perished from smoke inhalation, from jumping from the tower to escape the smoke and flames or by the building's eventual collapse. In the South Tower, one stairwell remained intact, allowing some to escape from above the point of impact. About 600 people died in the South Tower, less than half the number of those who died in the North Tower.
At least 200 people jumped to their deaths from the burning towers and landed on the streets and rooftops of adjacent buildings hundreds of feet below. Some occupants of each tower above its point of impact made their way upward toward the roof in hope of helicopter rescue, but found roof access doors locked. No plans existed for helicopter rescues. The thick smoke and intense heat would have prevented helicopters from plucking people from rooftops.
In Virginia, the third airliner was crashed into the Pentagon at the first-floor level, causing one section of the western side of the building to collapse, killing 25 employees, all 53 passengers, six crew members and five hijackers. Piloted by the hijackers, the fourth plane headed back toward Washington, most likely to hit the Capitol Building, but crashed in a field in rural Pennsylvania after passengers attempted to retake control of the airliner.
A wave of revulsion swept the country, which clamored for the capture and punishment of the perpetrators. Intensive screening techniques that should have been in place were instituted at airports to guarantee that this method of mass murder and destruction would never again be attempted. The doors to the pilots’ compartment of all commercial planes were made sturdier and more impregnable than the doors to passenger toilets.
President George W. Bush declared that the country was now engaged in a "global war on terror." Daniel Pipes, a conservative commentator on the Middle East and usually a supporter of the President, pointed out in the Jerusalem Post that terror is a tactic, not an enemy. Pipes added that by insisting its quarrel was with terror and not with radical Islam, the U.S. was obscuring the political roots of the confrontation.

The Legacy of 9/11
Following the attacks, suspicion immediately focused on al-Qaida and its leader, Osama bin Laden, who initially denied involvement. In 2004, he belatedly admitted being responsible for the incidents, citing U.S. support of Israel, the presence of U.S. troops on the holy soil of Saudi Arabia and years of crippling sanctions against Iraq as motives for the attacks.
Ironically, bin Laden was a creation of the United States, although the U.S. government remained singularly quiet about its role in the recruitment and arming of the al-Qaida fighters who forced the Russians to abandon their occupation of Afghanistan in 1989.
When Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the CIA, operating quietly at arm's length, organized an Afghan jihad, or holy war, against the “godless” Russians, with the cooperation of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency. The CIA provided weapons, recruited candidates from various Muslim countries and facilitated their travel to Pakistan for training.
Arab countries were the main source of fighters, jocularly called "Afghan Arabs." Recruits came from Algeria, Indonesia, Kosovo, Chechnya and Sudan. Bin Laden led this jihad and was its paymaster.
In October of 2001, the United States responded to the attacks by invading Afghanistan to depose the Taliban for harboring the al-Qaida members who had planned the 9/11 attacks. Although ample Special Forces were available, to spare American casualties U.S. commanders chose to use fighters of doubtful allegiance from rival factions to root out Taliban die-hards.
Our primary target was Osama bin Laden. Yet he was allowed to escape from our clutches in the caves of Tora Bora in Afghanistan, thriving and issuing pronouncements via taped messages from the safety of a hideaway believed to be somewhere in Pakistan.
Despite a record-shattering reward of $50 million offered for his capture, Osama bin Laden managed to remain at large for almost ten years, a potent threat to the United States and the West. What is remarkable about bin Laden as an adversary was that he clearly spelled out his intentions and objectives in his many taped messages. Persistent investigation of a few slim clues eventually pointed to a compound in a quiet corner of Pakistan. On May 1, 2011, he was killed in a daring raid authorized by President Barack Obama.
Bin Laden’s objective in the 9/11 attacks had been to destroy American symbols: the twin WTC towers (Wall Street/wealth), the Pentagon (the military), and the Capitol (the government). The magnitude of the American response exceeded his wildest dreams.
We attacked bin Laden's archenemy, the hated secularist Saddam, and laid waste to Iraq in a vain search for nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. It became a war in which experienced generals took a back seat to civilians. A month before the war began, Army chief of staff General Eric Shinseki had told Congress it would take an invasion force "on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers” to pacify Iraq.
Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a skilled Washington infighter, retaliated and undercut Shinseki’s authority by leaking the name of his successor 18 months ahead of the general’s retirement.
Deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz predicted an easy victory in which American troops would be greeted wildly by Iraqi civilians and pelted with flowers, and Iraqi oil revenues would pay for the occupation.
At a meeting to air soldiers’ gripes, Rumsfeld told a soldier who complained about the poor quality of equipment, “You go to war with the Army you have.” The problem with his answer was that the leaner, smaller, lightly-armored Army we sent into Iraq had been designed by the imperious Mr. Rumsfeld.
Iraq turned out to be an unwinnable war that has taken 4,474 American lives since March 19, 2003, including 44 killed thus far in 2011.
We are still actively engaged in another interminable and unwinnable war in Afghanistan, propping up the graft-ridden and corrupt regime of President Hamid Karzi. Afghanistan promises to be an even less-successful attempt at nation building than Iraq. In all, a total of 1,752 Americans have died there since October 7, 2001, including 306 killed thus far in 2011.
More than two thousand years ago, Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, author of the classic titled The Art of War, noted that no nation ever benefitted from a long war. Similarly, Israeli military historian and theorist Martin van Creveld has pointed out the futility of engaging in long wars.
Democracies, by their very nature, are not suited for long wars. They exist to provide a higher quality of life for their citizens, who will accept the need for short-term sacrifices. But long wars soon erode the popular will to continue a war, a condition we are experiencing now.
Historically, Afghanistan has been called “the graveyard of armies.” From Alexander the Great to the British and Russians, invaders have repeatedly discovered the rightness of that maxim. How long will it take for America’s leaders to awaken to the truth?

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