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A Success of Democracy?

A response to Elaine Scarry’s “Citizenship in Emergency

Charles Knight

8 I share many of Elaine Scarry’s concerns about the direction of American national defense. Over the last fifty years, and especially after conscription ended in the 1970s, our national defense has become the domain of professionals, increasingly right-wing in their political perspectives, increasingly removed from the citizens they serve, and increasingly operating outside of meaningful democratic oversight and control. In the Bush administration, radical neo-conservatives hold key positions of influence, and after September 11 they have been emboldened to talk openly about a new American empire and the need to build up and reform the armed services better to serve as its shock troops and gendarmes.

During the past year, Congress has shown little inclination to engage the enormous strategic questions raised by the administration’s “war on terrorism” and has mostly restricted its participation to quick approvals of large funding increases for the Pentagon and other executive security agencies. Now the administration is leading the country into a preemptive war against Iraq. If Congress’s recent timidity and passivity is any guide to future behavior, they will go through the motions of debate and give the president the broad “resolution of war” that he wants to go after Saddam Hussein. Realistically, the current Congress is just too conservative to mount any serious challenge to a president’s will to war.

While many of Elaine Scarry’s concerns are right on the money, the story she tells of 9/11 to support her case has numerous problems. I will focus here on three issues.

First, Scarry’s initial assertion that “the difficulty of defense on September 11 turned in large part on the pace of events” is overstated. The central problem that day was strategic surprise—specifically, no responsible official seemed to have understood that commercial airliners could be turned into powerful weapons by determined enemies. In comparison, it would have taken a squadron of fighter-bombers to take down the twin towers. The danger from fighter-bombers is well understood, and the United States has air defenses ready to take down attacking bombers; moreover, our own fighters and bombers are very well guarded on their bases. In contrast, our professional security forces completely missed the threat inherent in our large commercial airliners and had done nothing serious to defend their flight decks from hijackers.1

Speed is important to surprise. More important, though, are elements of invention and of deception, including long periods of quiet in which one’s opponents may relax their vigilance. On September 11, the speed of the aircraft was less important than their vulnerability to hijacking and the explosive power of their large fuel tanks when flown into a building.

Scarry is also interested in speed in a normative sense. She cites the supposed exigencies of modern threats as “the most frequent argument used to excuse the setting aside of the Constitution.” I agree in the sense that it is an “excuse” and not the truest reason. What we have witnessed in this country is a steady aggrandizement of the executive’s national security power and prerogative since at least the beginning of the Cold War, with only a brief interruption after the unsuccessful Vietnam War. I doubt, however, that lack of time for deliberation was very high among the reasons why Congress has yielded ground to the executive.

Second, Scarry’s argument for a more egalitarian defense strategy falters as soon as she introduces her thesis that “a form of defense that is external to the ground that needs to be defended does not work as well as a form of defense that is internal to the ground that needs to be protected.” She then examines in detail the story of the plane that hit the Pentagon (failed defense) and the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania (“successful”).

She asks us to consider that “each of the two planes was a small piece of U.S. ground,” but in that sense, neither defense was successful because both planes crashed, killing all on board. Only by defining success as having “disabled the hijacker’s mission” can she construe the story of Flight 93 as a success. It is true that the downing of Flight 93 successfully aborted the hijacker’s primary mission, and if we then consider the supposed target in Washington, D.C., as the ground to be defended, then whatever defense actions brought down Flight 93 were done external to the ground to be protected. The internal ground in this instance was the plane itself, and its protection failed.

In terms of Scarry’s concept of internal and external defense, I see no difference whether Flight 93 crashed as a result of action by the passengers, by the hijackers, or by air defense interception. In all cases the action would be taken external to the ultimate ground to be defended.

Finally, Scarry builds her argument around what has come to be known as the “heroes’ story” of Flight 93—the story that a group of passengers rushed the flight deck and brought the plane down. There is fairly good evidence that a group of passengers did try to rush the hijackers, but whether they succeeded in entering the flight deck and therein causing the crash is not known.

I am agnostic about the cause of the crash of Flight 93. The government had the intention and the capability to shoot down the plane, but whether the government did or not cannot yet be determined. Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning some facts that Scarry has wrong or has omitted:

• She says “the country has fourteen National Guard planes responsible for defending the country.” There may have been only fourteen on “high alert” that morning, but the country also has many hundreds that can be quickly readied and scrambled in an emergency.

• Five high-alert planes were scrambled, but we also know of other lower-alert National Guard planes that scrambled from Toledo, not far from where Flight 93 turned back toward Washington, and from Syracuse.

• Confirming a shoot-down order that morning, Dan Balz and Bob Woodward tell this story in the Washington Post: “In the White House bunker, a military aide approached the Vice President. ‘There is a plane eighty miles out,’ he said. ‘There is a fighter in the area. Should we engage?’ ‘Yes,’ Cheney replied without hesitation.” It is likely that a (classified) standing executive order exists that made this conversation superfluous. Nevertheless, the air defense operations officer might well have requested affirmation from the White House before the extraordinary act of shooting down a civilian airliner.

• Scarry mentions the speed of intercept planes only once, when she notes that they reportedly flew north from Langley at 600 mph in the minutes before the Pentagon crash. However, F-16s and F-15s are capable of flying at more than twice that speed, and a higher speed would allow enough time to intercept Flight 93 from either the East Coast or the near-Midwest. There is a report of a sonic boom recorded at a seismic station in Pennsylvania at 9:22 a.m. on September 11, more than forty minutes before the crash.

Both the heroes’ story and the shoot-down story are plausible, and it seems likely that if one hadn’t happened the other would have. If the heroes’ direct action resulted in the plane crashing, then it happened only moments before a National Guard plane would have shot it down. And if a fighter shot it down, it probably happened in the midst of the first stage of the heroes’ action. We simply don’t know which happened. In terms of evaluating defenses it doesn’t matter very much. Either way Washington, D.C., was saved from further damage and either way, the plane crashed. The only difference, an important difference in terms of how the story plays as inspirational wartime lore, is that if the heroes acted first and if there was in fact no National Guard fighter in the area they would have had a chance to wrest control from the hijackers, signal ground control, and take the plane in for a safe landing. That would have been a far better ending to the story. (Readers can find an informative and fairly evenhanded, if not highly disciplined, Flight 93 website at<

Charles Knight is a defense policy analyst with the Project on Defense Alternatives (PDA) at the Commonwealth Institute, Cambridge, Massachusetts. His current work addresses issues of preemptive war.


1. Remarkably, the country's leadership has still not taken the most direct step toward protecting ourselves from this threat: placing very well-trained air marshals on every flight. Expensive? Yes, but also a sufficient defense to remove this weapon from the options available to terrorists.

Click here to return to the New Democracy Forum, ‘Citizenship in Emergency’ with Elaine Scarry and respondents.

Originally published in the October/November 2002 issue of Boston Review

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