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911 The Day That Changed The World – Notes

September 8, 2011

On Tuesday night, I was able to watch an SBS special about the September 11 attacks on the eve of the tenth anniversary of the date. The succinct title of the program was ‘9/11: The Day That Changed The World’. The show can be found online HERE, but unfortunately there is no transcript supplied. It basically went through the whole event starting from when the terrorists boarded the planes, the government’s response hours following the attack and ended at the introduction of the Bush doctrine – the foreign response policies enacted by the Bush presidency.

The documentary had footage I haven’t seen before, and presented a more detailed chronology of events right after the first plane hit the World Trade centre, but it was also frustrating to watch at times, when it spoke of some subject, but didn’t go into more depth. One example was when the US intelligence was scrambling hours after the attacks to gather information; they recognised that it was Al Qaeda behind the attacks because they examined passenger names on the flights involved and linked them via intelligence agency files to the terrorist group. The documentary then asks how it was possible for the men to board the planes, but never bothered to provide an answer.

I wanted to talk about four things that struck me in the documentary about the attacks.

First a disclaimer: I DON’T subscribe to the conspiracy theories that entertain the idea that theUSgovernment is behind the attacks. When doing a bit of research into items raised in the documentary I found it difficult to sift and separate the wheat from the chaff – the legitimate from the crackpot sites.

In no particular order four things I found  interesting about the documentary.

Ethics of shooting down a passenger plane

The documentary featured snippets of interviews by various government and military officials. One of the more frequent appearances was of the Vice-president Dick Cheney. Not a popular man to say the least – I noticed how there is almost a requirement in articles that mention him, to include of a photo of the man with the most evil facial expression humanly possible, but I digress.

There were four planes hi-jacked in total, but that information wasn’t known at the time. So after the World Trade Centre sustained the attacks and the Pentagon was hit as well, it wasn’t clear if there were more planes coming. There was – Flight 93, that was headed for the Capital. That was the flight that crashed into the ground because the hijackers were wrestled down by the passengers.

At the time of the crash it wasn’t clear the crash occurred and there was a real threat of another plane heading for the Whitehouse or elsewhere.

What I thought would have been one of the most difficult decisions to make was when Dick Cheney spoke how he authorised military F-15 fighter jets to shoot down any passenger aircraft if it was likely that it would be used as a weapon against buildings and other people. That was confirmed by President Bush afterwards as well.

That scenario reminded me of those moral conundrums I use to read where there is a situation and I had to choose between two or so options but each one presented difficulties. One example is of the trolleys scenario:

A train is running out of control down a track. In its path are five people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you could flip a switch, which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch or do nothing?

Those utilitarian types of scenarios do serve some purpose, but I eventually saw them as very one-dimensional. In the real world there is uncertainly and usually more options to choose from as well as not forgetting that humans are not robots and don’t act mechanically – emotions play a big role in decision making. Plus I couldn’t really find many real world examples.When I listened to Cheney speak about him making that decision, as well as one of the pilots who was asked to perform the duty if required, it reminded me a lot of those old ethical dilemmas.

I like to ask myself what I would do in their shoes. The truth is, I may think I know how
I would act now, but in the midst of the moment you may act-on totally different drivers.

It appears that the US government would have shot down the passenger plane if indeed it didn’t crash and was heading for the Capital. But I found an interesting passage from a book called ‘Force and freedom: Kant’s legal and political philosophy” written by Arthur Ripstein. It mentions the German court in a post 9/11 era, having to decide on the same topic but coming to a different conclusion:

The German Constitutional Court addressed a related question of whether the constitution could authorize the minister of the interior to order a hijacked airliner to be shot down if it was in danger of being used as a missile against a populated area. The court held that such a law conflicted with the right of the passengers on the plane to human dignity. The passengers cannot be used to save the people in the building.


The German Constitutional Court reasoning reflects the underlying Kantian thought that the state’s obligation to uphold a rightful condition and protect its citizens is unconditional, not simply because of some fondness for rules, but rather because the use of force is merely unilateral unless its authorization could proceed from an omilateral will. People could only give themselves laws consistent with their innate right of humanity. As a result, the numbers cannot matter. If the state cannot order a person to stand in the path of a bullet that endangers an innocent person, it cannot order that person to stand in the path of a bullet that endangers many people. And if the state cannot order a person to do so, then it cannot exempt itself from such a prohibition in the case of a person who is likely to die anyway. The people give themselves laws not for their advantage, but for their independence, which they cannot trade against anything.

Number of planed flying over the US

Another memorable thing in the documentary is the amount of simultaneous flights occurring at the time of the attacks. There were over 5000 planes in the skies over the USA. I found two really cool videos of a 24 hour time-lapse showing just how busy the air space can get.

First video is of the US airspace in a 24 hour period. Its a beehive.

Second video is of the whole world.

More interestingly was the decision by the government to order all flights to be grounded shortly after the attacks. That meant all 5000 odd planes had to find and head towards the nearest airport to clear the skies. Any remaining planes would be suspected of being a terrorist operated plane and may be shot-down.

People jumping

The show had footage of New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani remembering a question he asked a fire chief, “can we get those people out, above the fire?”. He continues “he didn’t say no”, this is when the fire chief replies “my guys can save everybody below the fire. “. Giuliani relates his thought at the time; “without saying it, what it said to me was everybody above the fire will probably die and there is nothing I can do about it.”

The documentary has some clips of people deciding to jump from the top floors. The 10 airborne seconds of the unfortunate folks, deeply chizzled the scenes into my memory.

Bush reading in the classroom

At the time of the attacks George Bush was in Florida doing some reading to a kindergarten class. What I didn’t know was that when his motorcade just arrived at the kindergarten the first plane already hit and the White House director Deborah Loewer rushed to the president and told him ‘that an aircraft has impacted into the World Trade Centre’. Bush’s reply was ‘thank you captain, keep me informed’ yet he proceeded to meet the children and do some reading exercises. When the second plane hit and the White house staff became aware of it, the chief of Staff, Andrew Card walks up to Bush and whispers into the president’s right ear “the second plane hit the second tower, America is under attack!”

This is the moment from now infamous footage of the president just sitting there looking blankly out into the distance, then picking up a children’s book and nodding his head to the children reading. A number of minutes pass without any response from the Commander-in-chief. Michael Moores documentary has a little snippet of the moment.

I know that shock can paralyse people into inaction, but such behaviour of a man in arguably the most powerful role in the world is just ridiculous and inexcusable. The footage helped fuel conspiracy theories for years after the incident.

I am just amazed at the inaptitude of the man and all his staff who didn’t try to do something in the proceeding minutes after they learnt of the attacks.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Charlie C permalink
    March 6, 2012 11:06 am

    That was unbiased. Glad we have you to paint a clear picture. I didn’t notice any critique of Clinton’s cutting the budget of our intelligence operatives in the Gulf. I also missed the part where you talked about Clinton giving up the names of some of the operatives in that area; or how they were tortured and killed. Funny, I’ll bet you are one of those who thinks waterboarding is inhumane torture. Imagine what was done to those guys Clinton betrayed. Our own military pilots get waterboarded as part of their training. I guess that’s OK. It’s only torture when a murderer is waterboarded or the left is trying to make a point.

  2. Alen permalink
    March 7, 2012 11:05 pm

    Charlie, you’re an imbecile. He simply wrote a blog on a documentary he watched, he did not write an editorial piece regarding the actual incident. As such, it’s a bit much to expect a short post to cover the “sitz im leben” of the attacks. Your lackluster use of sarcasm of the ad hominem was pathetic. Next time, try actually reading what your criticizing and also, this is a pro tip: Criticism works best when you’re critiquing the content, not the person as the later accomplishes nothing. In my case, I get a 2 for 1 special.

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