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Citizenship in Emergency

Can democracy protect us against terrorism?

Elaine Scarry

8 For the past year, we have spoken unceasingly about the events of September 11, 2001. But one aspect of that day has not yet been the topic of open discussion: the difficulty we had as a country defending ourselves; as it happened, the only successful defense that day was carried out by the passengers on Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania. The purpose of this essay is to examine that difficulty, and the one success, and ask if they suggest that something in our defense arrangements needs to be changed. Whatever the ultimate answer to that question, we at least need to ask it since defending the country is an obligation we all share.

Speed and Security

The difficulty of defense on September 11 turned in large part on the pace of events. We need to look carefully at the timelines and timetables on that day. But as we do, it is crucial to recall that the word “speed” has been at the center of discussions of national defense for the last fifty years. When we look to any of our literatures on the subject, we find in the foreground statements about the speed of our weapons, of our weapons’ delivery systems, and of the deliberations that will lead to their use.

Throughout this period, the heart of our defense has been a vast missile system, all parts of which are described as going into effect in “a matter of minutes”: a presidential decision must be made in “a matter of minutes”; the presidential order must be transmitted in “a matter of minutes”; the speed of the missile launch must be carried out “in a matter of minutes”; and the missile must reach its target in “a matter of minutes.”

The matter-of-minutes claim is sometimes formally folded into the names of our weapons (as in the Minuteman missile) and other times appears in related banner words such as “supersonic” and “hairtrigger.”1 Thousands of miles separating countries and continents can be contracted by “supersonic” missiles and planes that carry us there in “a matter of minutes”; and thousands of miles separating countries and continents can be contracted by focusing on the distance that has to be crossed not by the weapon itself but by the hand gesture that initiates the launch—the distance of a hair.

“Speed” has occupied the foreground not only of our descriptive statements about our national defense but also our normative statements. Our military arrangements for defending the country have often been criticized for moving increasingly outside the citizenry’s control. The constitutional requirement for a Congressional declaration of war has not been used for any war since World War II: the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the war in former Yugoslavia were all carried out at the direction of the president and without a congressional declaration, as were the invasions of Panama, Grenada, and Haiti.2 Speed has repeatedly been invoked to counter ethical, legal, or constitutional objections to the way our weapons policies and arrangements have slipped further and further beyond democratic structures of self-governance.

This bypassing of the Constitution in the case of conventional wars and invasions has been licensed by the existence of nuclear weapons and by the country’s formal doctrine of Presidential First Use, which permits the president, acting alone, to initiate nuclear war.3 Since the president has genocidal injuring power at his personal disposal, obtaining Congress’s permission for much lesser acts of injury (as in conventional wars) has often struck presidents as a needless bother.4 The most frequent argument used to excuse the setting aside of the Constitution is that the pace of modern life simply does not allow time for obtaining the authorization of Congress, let alone the full citizenry. Our ancestors who designed the Constitution—so the argument goes—simply had no picture of the supersonic speed at which the country’s defense would need to take place. So the congressional requirement is an anachronism. With planes and weapons traveling faster than the speed of sound, what sense does it make to have a lot of sentences we have no time to hear?

Among the many revelations that occurred on September 11 was a revelation about our capacity to act quickly. Speed—the realpolitik that has excused the setting aside of the law for fifty years—turns out not to have been very real at all. The description that follows looks at the timetables of American Airlines Flight 77—the plane that hit the Pentagon—and United Airlines Flight 93—the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania when passengers successfully disabled the hijackers’ mission. Each of the two planes was a small piece of U.S. ground. Their juxtaposition indicates 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. This outcome precisely matches the arguments that were made at the time of the writing of the Constitution about why the military had to be “held within a civil frame”: about why military actions, whether offensive or defensive, must be measured against the norms of civilian life, must be brought into contact with the people with whom one farms or performs shared labor, or the people with whom one raises children, or the people with whom one goes to church or a weekly play or movie. Preserving such a civil frame was needed to prevent the infantilization of the country’s population by its own leaders, and because it was judged to be the only plausible way actually to defend the home ground.

When the plane that hit the Pentagon and the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania are looked at side by side, they reveal two different conceptions of national defense: one model is authoritarian, centralized, top down; the other, operating in a civil frame, is distributed and egalitarian. Should anything be inferred from the fact that the first form of defense failed and the second succeeded? This outcome obligates us to review our military structures, and to consider the possibility that we need a democratic, not a top-down, form of defense. At the very least, the events of September 11 cast doubt on a key argument that, for the past fifty years, has been used to legitimize an increasingly centralized, authoritarian model of defense—namely the argument from speed.

American Flight 77

American Airlines 77 was originally scheduled to fly from Washington to Los Angeles. The plane approached the Pentagon at a speed of 500 miles per hour.5 It entered the outermost of the building’s five rings, ring E, then cut through ring D and continued on through ring C, and eventually stopped just short of ring B.6 Two million square feet were damaged or destroyed.7 Before September 11, the Pentagon was five corridors deep, five stories high, and in its overall shape, five-sided. Three of the Pentagon’s five sides were affected (one had to be leveled and rebuilt; the other two were badly damaged by smoke and water).

One hundred and eighty-nine people died—64 on the plane, 125 working in the Pentagon. Many others were badly burned.8 Thousands of people work in the Pentagon.9 Two factors prevented many more people from being killed or badly burned. First, the building is stacked horizontally, not vertically like the World Trade Center towers—it is built like layers of sedimentary rock that have been turned on their side and lie flush with the ground. Second, one of the sections hit was being renovated and was therefore relatively empty of people when the plane entered.

While we continue to lament the deaths and injuries, and while we continue to find solace in the fact that the number of deaths and injuries was not higher, one key fact needs to be held on to and stated in a clear sentence: on September 11, the Pentagon could not defend the Pentagon, let alone the rest of the country.

The U.S. military had precious little time to respond on September 11 (and this fact has been accurately acknowledged by almost everyone, both inside and outside the country, who has spoken about the day). But by the standards of speed that have been used to justify setting aside constitutional guarantees for the last fifty years, the U.S. military on September 11 had a luxurious amount of time to protect the Pentagon. They had more than minutes. The pilots of the F-15s and F-16s that flew on September 11 made no mistakes, displayed no inadequacies, and showed no lack of courage—but what they tried to do now appears to have been a structural impossibility.

One hour and twenty-one minutes go by between the moment FAA controllers learn that multiple planes have been taken and the moment the Pentagon is struck. Controllers hear the hijackers on the first seized plane (American Flight 11) say “we have some planes” at 8:24 a.m., a sentence indicating that the plane from which the voice comes is not the sole plane presently imperiled. The information that “some planes” have been taken is available one hour and 21 minutes before the Pentagon is hit by the third seized plane at 9:45 a.m.10

Fifty-eight minutes go by between the attack on the first World Trade Tower (at 8:47 a.m.) and the crash into the Pentagon (9:45 a.m.). This means that for almost one hour before the Pentagon is hit, the military knows that the hijackers have multiple planes and that those hijackers have no intention to land those planes safely.

The crash of American Flight 77 into the Pentagon comes fifty-five minutes after that plane has now itself disappeared from radio contact (at 8:50 a.m.). So for fifty-five minutes, the military now knows three things:

1. the hijackers have multiple planes;

2. the hijackers—far from having any intention of landing the planes safely—intend to injure as many people on the ground as possible;11 and

3. Flight 77 has a chance of being one of those planes since it has just disappeared from radio.

When, six minutes later, the plane loses its transponder (so that its radar image as well as its radio contact is now lost), the chance that it is one of the seized planes rises.

By the most liberal reading, then, the country had one hour and twenty-one minutes to begin to respond. By the most conservative reading, the country had fifty-five minutes to begin to respond.12 The phrase “begin to respond” does not mean that an F-15 or F-16 could now attack the plane that would hit the Pentagon. At the one hour and twenty-one–minute clock time, the plane that will eventually hit the Pentagon is only four minutes into its flight and has not yet been hijacked. It means instead that a warning threshold has just been crossed and a level of readiness might therefore begin: at one hour and twenty-one minutes, fighter pilots could be placed on standby on the ground with engines running; at fifty-five minutes, fighter planes could be following the third plane, as well as any other planes that are wildly off course with radio contact missing.

One hour and twenty-one minutes and fifty-five minutes are each a short time—a short, short time. But . . . by the timetables that we have for decades accepted as descriptive of our military weapons, by the timetables we have accepted as explanations for why we must abridge our structures of self-governance—by the intoxicating timetables of “rapid response,” the proud specifications of eight minutes, twelve minutes, four minutes, one minute—by these timetables, the September 11 time periods of one hour and twenty-one minutes or of fifty-five minutes are very long periods indeed.

The transition from the moment Flight 77’s radio is off (at 8:50 a.m.) to the moment it disappears from secondary radar (8:56 a.m.) is crucial, for it begins to confirm the inference that this is one of the hijacked planes.13 A sequence of confirmations now follows. While the FAA controllers have been unable to reach the plane, now the airline company also discovers its inability to reach Flight 77 on a separate radio (shortly after 9 a.m.)14 At 9:25 a passenger, Barbara Olson, places a phone call to her husband in the U.S. Justice Department, Theodore Olson, stating that the plane is under the control of hijackers.15 Because the passenger is well known to the Justice Department listener, no time need be lost assessing the honesty and accuracy of the report. This means that twenty minutes prior to the moment the Pentagon is hit, the Justice Department has direct, reliable voice confirmation of the plane’s seizure.

So for twenty minutes prior to the hitting of the Pentagon, the military is in the position to know three things (the third of which differs decisively from what it knew at the fifty-five minute marker):

1. the hijackers have multiple planes;

2. the hijackers intend to injure as many people as possible;

3. Flight 77 is certainly one of the hijacked planes: it has disappeared from radio, has disappeared from secondary radar, has disappeared from the company radio, and has been described to the Justice Department as “hijacked” by a passenger whose word cannot be doubted.

The steadily mounting layers of verification listed in number 3 continue. At 9:33 a.m., an FAA air traffic controller sees on radar a “fast moving blip” (or “fast moving primary target”) making its way toward Washington air space: this level of verification comes twelve minutes prior to the plane’s crash into the Pentagon. At 9:36 a.m. an airborne C-130 sees the plane itself and identifies it as a “757 moving low and fast.”16 This further confirmation comes nine minutes prior to the collision. No one can suppose that in nine minutes planes could be scrambled and reach the hijacked plane (even if we have, for decades, listened dutifully to descriptions of much more complicated military acts occurring in nine minutes). But certainly the layers of alert, of scrambling, of takeoff, of tracking, could have begun one hour and twenty minutes earlier, or fifty-five minutes earlier, not nine minutes earlier. Nine minutes is presumably the time frame in which only the last act of military defense need be carried out by the fighter planes—if there is any reasonable last act to be taken, a question to which I will return.

During much of its flight, American Flight 77 was over countryside (rather than over densely populated urban areas).17 The six successive layers of verification need to be spatially displayed so that we can begin to picture where the plane was during each of them:

loss of radio (55 minutes remain)
loss of transponder (49 minutes remain)
loss of contact with the airline company (approximately 36 minutes remain)
a passenger calls the Justice Department (20 minutes remain)
a radar image is seen moving toward Washington whose source is not using its official“secondary” radar (12 minutes remain)
a C-130 sights a Boeing 757 flying fast and low (9 minutes remain)

Assuming an airspeed of 500 miles an hour, we can infer that at the time we learn that both the radio and the transponder are off (the second layer of confirmation), the plane would be 441 miles from Washington with many miles of sparsely populated land beneath it.18 By the fourth confirmation (Barbara Olson’s phone call), it would be 180 miles from Washington. By the sixth confirmation, that given by the C-130, the plane destined for the Pentagon would still be 81 miles from Washington and the possibility of minimizing injury to those on the ground would be rapidly vanishing with each passing mile.

Again, the point here is not to say, “Why couldn’t these airmen shoot down the plane?” Time made that extremely difficult. But much smaller units of time have been invoked to explain our battle readiness over the last fifty years and to license the centralization of injuring power rather than a decentralized and distributed authorization across the full citizenry that is, according to the U.S. Constitution, our legal right and our legal responsibility to protect. There is a second profound reason the act could not be (ought not to have been) carried out—the problem of consent, to which I will return when we come to Flight 93.

Let us see what actions the military undertook during this time. The country has fourteen National Guard planes responsible for defending the country. Five of those planes—two F-15s from Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod and three F-16s from Langley in Virginia—were called into action on September 11. These five planes were not the only military planes in the air that day. Once the Pentagon was hit, the FAA ordered all aircraft to land in a beautifully choreographed landing of 4,546 planes over a period of three hours. When the FAA announced the order, 206 military planes were in U.S. airspace (most engaged in routine exercises, actions unconnected to the immediate defense of the country); ninety remained in the air after the grounding (their duties have not been entered into the public record).19 But it is only the five National Guard planes that were called into action against the seized passenger airliners that will be described here.

The two National Guard F-15s that took off from Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod attempted to address the events taking place in New York City. They were called into action one minute before the first World Trade Center tower was hit; by the time the second tower was hit they were 71 miles—eight minutes—away from Manhattan. Should they then have continued down to the Washington area? (By this time, the plane destined for the Pentagon had its radio and transponder off and was reachable by neither air controllers nor the airline company.) The answer is no. The two F-15s needed to stay near New York City, where it was reasonable to worry that a third hijacked plane could approach. From September 11, 2001, until March 21, 2002, New York airspace was protected 24 hours a day by F-15s, F16s, and AWACS.

Three F-16s at Langley, Virginia, received their first order from Huntress Defense Section at 9:24 a.m. This is a late start: twenty-two minutes after the second World Trade Center tower has been hit, thirty-four minutes after the plane destined for the Pentagon has lost its radio, twenty-eight minutes after it has disappeared from secondary radar, and fifteen minutes after the airline company has failed to reach the plane on its own radio. By 9:30 a.m. the three Langley F-16s are in the air traveling at 600 MPH toward New York City. Soon they are instructed to change their course and are told that Reagan National Airport is the target. They are flying at 25,000 feet.20 The hijacked plane is flying at 7,000 feet. They reach Washington, D.C., at some unspecified time after the 9:45 collision of Flight 77 into the Pentagon. As they pass over the city, they are asked to look down and confirm that the Pentagon is on fire—confirmation that by this point civilians on the ground have already provided.

There are profoundly clear reasons why the military could not easily intercept the plane and bring it down in a rural area. But each of those reasons has counterparts in our longstanding military arrangements that should now be subjected to rigorous questioning. First: Flight 77’s path was hard to track since its transponder had been turned off. Yes, that’s true—and so, too, any missiles fired on the United States or its allies will surely be traveling without a transponder; their path will not be lucid; their tracking will not be easy. Second, the fact that Flight 77’s radio was not working couldn’t be taken as a decisive sign that it was a hijacked plane since at least eleven other planes in the country had radios not working (none of the others hijacked). Yes, that’s true—and with missile defense there are likely to be not eleven but hundreds of decoys and false targets that will have to be nimbly sorted through. As difficult as it was to identify the third seized plane, it must be acknowledged that the flight had elements that made it far easier to identify than the enemy missiles our nation has spoken blithely about for decades: the direct voice confirmation provided by the passenger phone call to the Justice Department, most notably, will not have any counterpart on a missile attack; nor can we reasonably expect six layers of verification of any one enemy plane or missile.

A third crucial explanation for the failure to protect the Pentagon is that an F-16 cannot shoot down a passenger plane by arrogating to itself the right to decide whether the lives on board can be sacrificed to avert the possibility of even more lives being lost on the ground.21 Yes, that is true—and yet for decades we have spoken about actions that directly imperil the full American citizenry (including presidential first use of nuclear weapons against a population that the president acting alone has decided is “the enemy”) without ever obtaining the American citizenry’s consent to those actions.

Each of these three explanations for why the attack on the Pentagon could not be easily averted raises key questions about our longstanding descriptions of the country’s defense, and yet so far does not appear to have in any way altered those descriptions. September 11 has caused the United States and its allies to adjust their timetables only in those cases where the scenario imagined closely approximates the events that occurred in the terrorist attack itself. In England, for example, “MI5 has warned Ministers that a determined terrorist attempt to fly a jet into the Sellafield nuclear plant in Cumbria could not be prevented because it is only two minutes’ flying time from transatlantic flight paths.”22

While two minutes’ time makes it impossible to defend Cumbria against terrorists, two minutes is apparently plenty of time for carrying out missile defense by the United States and NATO allies. Here is a post–September 11 description of England’s “Joint Rapid Reaction Force”: “A new satellite communications system has been installed to allow planners in Northwood to transmit target co-ordinates to the royal Navy’s nuclear submarines equipped to fire Tomahawk cruise missiles. HMS Trafalgar and HMS Triumph in the Indian Ocean both have this system. Within minutes of the Prime Minister giving permission to fire from Downing Street, General Reith could pass on the orders to the submarine nominated to launch the precision attack.”23 What would be the response by Western democracies if a terrorist now used chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons? In an article describing advice to Tony Blair from his defense ministers, we learn that “one of his most trusted advisers believes that a highly effective way of preventing such an attack is to threaten states that succor the terrorists with a nuclear wipe-out, within minutes of such an attack, without waiting for intelligence reports, United Nations resolutions or approval from NATO.”24 Does the Bush administration have plans in place for such attack? Might it be our duty to inquire?

The plane that took the Pentagon by surprise could not be stopped despite a one hour and twenty-one–minute warning that multiple planes had been hijacked, despite a fifty-eight–minute warning that the hijackers intended to maximize the number of casualties, despite a fifty-five–minute warning that Flight 77 might possibly be a hijacked flight, and despite a twenty-minute warning that Flight 77 was certainly a hijacked flight. Yet so confident are we of our ability to get information, of our power to decipher complex lines of responsibility, of the existence of evil and of the transparency of that evil, that we are still today talking about the two or three minutes to send cruise missiles and even nuclear genocide to foreign populations. This despite eleven months—475,000 minutes—in which we have been unable to determine who sent anthrax to the U.S. Senate and various centers of television communication.

United Flight 93

United Airlines Flight 93 was a small piece of American territory—roughly 600 cubic meters in its overall size. It was lost to the country for approximately forty minutes when terrorists seized control. It was restored to the country when civilian passengers who became citizen-soldiers regained control of the ground—in the process losing their own lives.

The passengers on United Flight 93 were able to defend this ground for two reasons: first, they were able to identify the threat accurately because it was in their immediate sensory horizon (unlike the F-16s that hoped to intercept the plane that hit the Pentagon, the passengers on Flight 93 did not need to decipher their plane’s flight path from the outside, nor make inferences and guesses about lost radio contact). The passengers were also able to get information from unimpeachable sources external to the plane: crucially, they did not rely on information from a single central authority but obtained it from a distributed array of sources, each independent of the others. Second, it was their own lives they were jeopardizing, their own lives over which they exercised authority and consent. On the twin bases of sentient knowledge and authorization, their collaborative work met the democratic standard of “informed consent.”

When the U.S. Constitution was completed it had two provisions for ensuring that decisions about war-making were distributed rather than concentrated. The first was the provision for a congressional declaration of war—an open debate in both the House and the Senate involving what would today be 535 men and women. The second was a major clause of the Bill of Rights—the Second Amendment right to bear arms—which rejected a standing executive army (an army at the personal disposal of president or king) in favor of a militia, a citizen’s army distributed across all ages, geography, and social class of men.25 Democracy, it was argued, was impossible without a distributed militia: self-governance was perceived to be logically impossible without self-defense (exactly what do you “self-govern” if you have ceded the governing of your own body and life to someone else?)

United Flight 93 was like a small legislative assembly or town meeting. Figure 2 shows the assembly structure. The residents on that ground conferred with one another, as well as with people not residing on the plane. Records from the on-board telephones show that twenty-four phone calls were made between 9:31 a.m. and 9:54 a.m.; additional calls were made from cell phones.26 In approximately twenty-three minutes, the passengers were able collectively to move through the following sequence of steps:27

1. Identify the location throughout the plane of all hijackers and how many people each is holding. We know that passengers registered this information in detail because they voiced the information to people beyond the plane: Todd Beamer relayed the information to Lisa Jefferson (a Verizon customer-service operator); Jeremy Glick relayed it to his wife;28 Sandy Bradshaw to her husband; Mark Bingham to his mother; Marion Britton to a close friend; Elizabeth Wainio to her stepmother; and CeeCee Lyles to her husband.

In terms of democratic self-defense, these conversations are crucial (both at step one and at each of the seven steps listed below) to preserving the civil frame that the founders identified as so essential to military defense. The conversations enabled extraordinary events to be tested against the norms of everyday life. They were both intimate and an act of record-making: how else to explain Mark Bingham’s self-identification to his mother, “This is Mark Bingham.” He both gave his mother the statement that the plane had been seized by hijackers (“You believe me, don’t you?”) and in effect notarized the statement by giving a verbal signature.

2. Hear from sources outside the plane the story of World Trade Center towers. This information was key: it informed the passengers that they would almost certainly not be making a safe landing; it also informed them that many people on the ground would also suffer death or injury from their plane.

3. Verify by multiple sources outside the plane the World Trade Center story. Jeremy Glick, for example, told his wife that the account of the World Trade Center attacks was circulating among the passengers. He explicitly asked her to confirm or to deny its truth: “Is it true?”

4. Consult with each other and with friends outside the plane about the appropriate action. Jeremy Glick told his family the passengers were developing a plan “to rush” the hijackers and he asked their advice. Todd Beamer told Lisa Jefferson the passengers will “take” the terrorists (she cautioned: “Are you sure that’s what you want to do?”) Tom Burnett told his wife a group of us “is going to do something” (she urged him to lay low and not make himself visible). Sandy Bradshaw told her husband she was at that moment filling coffee pots with boiling water which she planned to throw at the hijackers; she asked if he had a better plan (he tells her she has the best plan and to go ahead).

5. Take a vote. Jeremy Glick described the voting process to his wife as it was underway.

6. Prepare themselves for taking a dire action that may result in death. CeeCee Lyles, unable to reach her husband, left on the phone a recording of herself praying, then later reached him and prayed with him; Tom Burnett asked his wife to pray while he and others on the plane acted; Todd Beamer and Lisa Jefferson together recited the Twenty-third Psalm.

7. Take leave of people they love. Each of the passengers who was in conversation with a family member stated aloud his or her love for the listener; Todd Beamer asked Lisa Jefferson to convey his love to his family. The family members reciprocated: “I’ve got my arms around you,” Elizabeth Wainio’s stepmother told her.

8. Act.

Many passengers described the plan to enter the cockpit by force. Not every passenger assumed death was certain. Jeremy Glick left his phone off the hook, telling his wife, “Hold the phone. I’ll be back.” Todd Beamer also left the phone line open—either because he expected to come back, or as an act of public record-keeping. The two open lines permitted members of the Glick household and Lisa Jefferson to overhear the cries and shouts that followed, indicating that action was being taken. CeeCee Lyles, still on the phone with her husband, cried, “They’re doing it! They’re doing it!” Confirmation is also provided by Sandy Bradshaw’s sudden final words to her husband: “Everyone’s running to first class. I’ve got to go. Bye.”29

The passengers on United Flight 93 could act with speed because they resided on the ground that needed to be defended. Equally important, they could make the choice—formalized in their public act of an open vote—between certain doom and uncertain (but possibly more widespread) doom. They could have hoped that the hijackers would change their planned course; they could have known that death by either avenue was certain, but one avenue would take them to their deaths in several minutes (rushing the hijackers and crashing the plane) and the other avenue would perhaps give them another half-hour or hour of life (waiting for the plane to reach its final target). They could have chosen the second; many people have chosen a delayed death when given the same choice. It is, in any event, the right of the people who themselves are going to die to make the decision, not the right of pilots in an F-16 or the person giving orders to the person in the F-16—as both civilian and military leaders have repeatedly acknowledged since September 11.

It may be worth taking note of the fact that the hijackers themselves correctly foresaw that the threat to their mission would come from the passengers (“citizen soldiers”) and not from a military source external to the plane. The terrorists left behind them multiple copies of a manual, five pages in Arabic.30 The manual is a detailed set of instructions for the hours before and after boarding the plane—“an exacting guide for achieving the unity of body and spirit necessary for success.” The ritualized set of steps includes: taking a mutual pledge to die; carrying out a ritual act of washing, invocation, and prayer; and dressing according to prescribed recommendations on the tightness or looseness of clothing.

The manual does not tell the terrorists what to do if an F-15 or F-16 approaches the planes they have seized.31 It instead gives elaborate instruction on what to do if passengers offer resistance. We should not ordinarily let ourselves be schooled by terrorists. But terrorists who seek to carry out a mission successfully have to know what the greatest threat to their mission is—and the handbook indicates that the great obstacle was perceived to be first, the passengers, and second, the reluctance the hijackers might feel to kill any resisting passengers. They are instructed at length and in elaborate detail to kill any resister and to regard the killing as “a sacred drama,” a death carried out to honor their parents. (That the hijackers would unblinkingly crash into a skyscraper taking thousands of lives yet balk at the idea of killing people hand-to-hand and therefore require detailed counseling to get through it is perhaps no more surprising than the fact that we listen every day to casualty rates brought about by the military yet would not keenly kill in hand-to-hand combat.)


I have intended here to open a conversation about our general capacity for self-defense. I have compared the fate of the plane that hit the Pentagon and the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. The military was unable to thwart the action of Flight 77 despite fifty-five minutes in which clear evidence existed that the plane might be held by terrorists, and despite twenty minutes in which clear evidence existed that the plane was certainly held by terrorists. In the same amount of time—twenty-three minutes—the passengers of Flight 93 were able to gather information, deliberate, vote, and act.32

September 11 involved a partial failure of defense. If ever a country has been warned that its arrangements for defense are defective, the United States has been warned. Standing quietly by while our leaders build more weapons of mass destruction and bypass more rules and more laws (and more citizens) simply continues the unconstitutional and—as we have recently learned—ineffective direction we have passively tolerated for fifty years. We share a responsibility to deliberate about these questions, as surely as the passengers on Flight 93 shared a responsibility to deliberate about how to act. The failures of our current defense arrangements put an obligation on all of us to review the arrangements we have made for protecting the country. “All of us” means “all of us who reside in the country,” not “all of us who work at the Pentagon” or “all of us who convene when there is a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.” What the Chiefs of Staff think, or what analysts at the Pentagon think, is of great interest (as are the judgments of men and women who by other avenues of expertise have thoughtful and knowledgeable assessments of security issues); it would be a benefit to the country if such people would now begin to share those views with the public. But such views can in no way preempt or abridge our own obligation to review matters, since the protection of the country falls to everyone whose country it is.

More particularly, September 11 called into question a key argument that has been used to legitimate the gradual shift from an egalitarian, all-citizens’ military to one that is external to—independent of—civilian control: the argument from speed. The egalitarian model turned out to have the advantage of swiftness, as well as obvious ethical advantages. This outcome has implications for three spheres of defense.

1. Defense against aerial terrorism. To date, the egalitarian model of defense is the only one that has worked against aerial terrorism. It worked on September 11 when passengers brought down the plane in Pennsylvania. It again worked on December 22, 2001, when passengers and crew on an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami prevented a terrorist (now called “the shoe bomber”) from blowing up the plane with plastic explosives and killing 197 people on board. Two Air Force F-15s escorted the plane to Boston and, once the plane landed, FBI officials hurried aboard; but the danger itself was averted not by the fighter jets or the FBI but by men and women inside the plane who restrained the 6'4" man using his own hair, leather belts, earphone wires, and sedatives injected by two physicians on board.

When a passenger plane is seized by a terrorist, defense from the outside (by a fighter jet, for example) appears to be structurally implausible from the perspective of time, and structurally impossible from the perspective of consent. The problem of time—time to identify that a plane has been seized, time to identify accurately which plane it is, time to arrive in the airspace near the seized plane—was dramatically visible in the case of the plane that hit the Pentagon, even though much more time and more layers of verification were available that day than are likely to be available in any future instance. The time difficulty was visible again on January 5, 2002, when a fifteen-year-old boy took off without authorization from Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, crossed through the airspace of MacDill Air Force Base (the headquarters for the U.S. war in Afghanistan), and then flew into a forty-two–story Bank of America skyscraper in Tampa, hitting at the twenty-eighth floor. Two F-15 fighter jets “screamed” toward him from the south, but reached him only after he had completed his twenty-five minute flight.33 The time problem was visible once more on June 19, 2002, when a pilot and passenger in a Cessna 182 accidentally crossed into forbidden Washington Monument airspace, flew there for twelve miles (coming within four miles of the White House), and then crossed out again before armed F-16s from Andrews Air Force Base could reach them.

Even if the nearly insurmountable problems of time and perfect knowledge can one day be solved, how can the problem of consent be solved? There is no case in war where a soldier is authorized to kill 200 fellow soldiers; how can an airman be authorized to kill 200 fellow citizens? How can anyone other than the passengers themselves take their lives in order to save some number of the rest of us on the ground? During the seven months that F-15s and F-16s, armed with air-to-air missiles, flew round the clock over New York and Washington, what instructions did they have in the event that a passenger plane was seized? What instructions do they now have for their more intermittent flights? Are such instructions something only high-ranking officials should be privy to, or might this be something that should be candidly discussed in public?

It seems reasonable to conclude that on September 11 the Pentagon could have been defended in one way and one way only, by the passengers on the American Airlines flight. This would have required three steps: that multiple passengers on the plane be informed about the World Trade Center towers;34 that the passengers decide to act or instead to abstain from acting; and that, in the event that they choose to act, they be numerous enough to successfully carry out their plan. As far as we know, none of these steps took place—in part because, as far as we know, there were not multiple passengers on board who knew about the World Trade Center towers. It is possible that one or more of these steps took place, even though they have not been recorded.

In stating that the egalitarian model is our best and only defense against aerial terrorism, I do not mean that passengers in any one case must choose to act, or that—having so chosen—they will be successful. I mean only that this is the one form of defense available to us as a country, which passengers are at liberty to exercise or refrain from exercising. Measures taken by the nation that are internal to the plane (locks on cockpit door, the presence of air marshals, the cessation of the round-the-clock fighter jets over New York and Washington35) are compatible with this form of defense.

2. National defense in the immediate present. The contrast between the plane that hit the Pentagon and the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania invites consideration of the need to return to an egalitarian and democratic military not only in the specific case of aerial terrorism but in all measures we take for the nation’s defense in the present year. Some may argue that we cannot generalize from one day. Can we generalize from zero days? One day is what we have. What makes this non-risky is that rather than requiring us to come up with some new system of government, all it requires is returning to, and honoring, the framework of our own laws.

Since September 11 we have witnessed many actions taken in the name of homeland defense that are independent of, or external to, civilian control. Foreign residents have been seized and placed in circumstances that violate our most basic laws; the war against Afghanistan was underway before we had even been given much explanation of its connection to the terrorists, who were all from Saudi Arabia or Lebanon or Egypt or the United Arab Emirates and not from Afghanistan; that war now seems to be over even though we don’t know whether we eliminated the small circle around Osama bin Laden, for whose sake we believed we were there; we are now tripping rapidly ahead to the next war, listening passively to weekly announcements about an approaching war with Iraq that has no visible connection to the events of September 11; the president’s formulation of this future war sometimes seems to include (or at least not to exclude) the use of nuclear weapons and the animation of our nuclear first-use policy.36 The decoupling of all defense from the population itself lurches between large outcomes (presidential declaration of war) and the texture of everyday life. According to the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, the federal agency called the National Communications Systems has “proposed that government officials be able to take over the wireless networks used by cellular telephones in the event of an emergency,” thereby pre-empting the very form of defense that did work (the citizenry) and giving their tools to the form of defense that did not work (the official government).37

We are defending the country by ceding our own powers of self-defense to a set of managers external to ourselves. But can these powers be ceded without relinquishing the very destination toward which we were traveling together, as surely as if our ship had been seized? The destination for which we purchased tickets was a country where no one was arrested without their names being made public, a country that did not carry out wars without the authorization of Congress (and the widespread debate among the population that such a congressional declaration necessitates), a country that does not threaten to use weapons of mass destruction. Why are we sitting quietly in our seats?

In the short run, returning to an egalitarian model of defense means: no war with Iraq unless it has been authorized by Congress and the citizenry; no abridgment of civil liberties; no elimination of the tools that enable citizens to protect themselves and one another (such as cell phones)—and above all, no contemplated use of nuclear weapons.

3. National defense in the long run. Europeans often refer to nuclear weapons as “monarchic weapons” precisely because they are wholly external to any powers of consent or dissent exercised by the population. In the long run, the return to an egalitarian model of national defense will require the return to a military that uses only conventional weapons. This will involve a tremendous cost: it will almost certainly, for example, mean the return of a draft. But a draft means that a president cannot carry out a war without going through the citizenry, and going through the citizenry means that the arguments for going to war get tested tens of thousands of times before the killing starts.

Our nuclear weapons are the largest arsenal of genocidal weapons anywhere on earth. These weapons, even when not in use, deliver a death blow to our democracy.38 But even if we are willing to give up democracy to keep ourselves safe, on what basis have we come to believe that they keep us safe? Their speed? A Cessna plane (of the kind that proved impossible to intercept in Florida and Washington) travels at approximately 136 feet per second; a Boeing 757 (of the kind that proved impossible to intercept as it approached the Pentagon) travels at 684 feet per second; a missile travels at 6,400 feet per second.39 On what have we based our confidence about intercepting incoming missiles, since the problem of deciphering information and decoupling it from false decoys will (along with speed) be much higher in the case of the missile than in the cases of the planes?40

Nuclear weapons are an extreme form of aerial terrorism. It is with good reason that we have worked to prevent the proliferation throughout the world of nuclear weapons (as well as biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction). But in the long run other countries of the world will only agree to abstain from acquiring them, or to give them up in cases where they already have them, when and if the United States agrees to give them up. The process of persuading Iraq, China, North Korea, India, Pakistan, as well as our immediate allies, to give them up will commence on the day we agree to restore within our own country a democratic form of self-defense.<

Elaine Scarry is Walter M. Cabot Professor of aesthetics and the general theory of value, is author of many books, including The Body in Pain, On Beauty, and Dreaming by the Book.


1. As with the matter-of-minutes vocabulary, the hairtrigger description is widely understood to apply either to the material act of firing a weapon or the mental act of deliberating. In the spring of 2001, Peace Links asked U.S. President Clinton and Russian President Putin to take all weapons off “hair-trigger status,” which gives “both countries three minutes to decide whether to launch nuclear missiles once the military tells them it thinks they have spotted an incoming missile.” South Bend Tribune, 29 April 2001. Italics added.

2. On the question of whether the country had a constitutional declaration of war against Iraq in the Gulf War, see Michael J. Glennon, “The Gulf War and the Constitution,” Foreign Affairs 70 (Spring 1991): 84–101.

3. Presidential First Use of Nuclear Weapons became a formal written policy in “Presidential Directive 59” during the Carter Administration; it has been the country’s official policy during the entire nuclear age. On Eisenhower’s deliberations, for example, about using a nuclear weapon in the Taiwan Straits (l954) and again in Berlin (1959), see E. Scarry, “The Declaration of War: Constitutional and Unconstitutional Violence,” in Austin Sarat and Thomas Kearns, eds., Law’s Violence, Amherst Series in Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought (Univ. of Michigan Press, l992), 23–77.

4. For example, President Bush Senior boasted, “I didn’t have to get permission from some old goat in the United States Congress to kick [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait” (Washington Post, 21 June l992, A18).

5. On the speed of Flight 77, see note 18 below.

6. “United States Department of Defense News Briefing,” M2 Presswire for 17 September 2001 states that it broke through the wall of corridor C, penetrating into the driveway that separates ring C from ring B (but it does not cite any damage to the B ring).

7. Angie Cannon, “The ‘Other’ Tragedy,” (U.S. News and World Report, 131:24 10 December 2001), 22.

8. ABC News, Sept. 14, 2001, described both the terrible burn injuries and the “wind of fire” spreading through the building. Angie Cannon in “The ‘Other’ Tragedy” gives an extended account of the injuries. Because no planes could fly into Washington, medical centers from around the country enlisted the help of marathon drivers to carry replacement skin: two drivers from Texas, according to Cannon, drove 70 square feet of skin to Washington in 23 hours and 12 minutes, stopping only for drive-through sandwiches and bathroom breaks; 30 square feet of skin arrived from Cincinnati in 12 hours; two surgeons at Washington Hospital Center, Dr. Jordan and Dr. James Jeng, “worked 12– to 16–hour days” for three weeks.

9. The figure of 23,000 is given on the Pentagon website.

10. Three different times have been given for the crash of Flight 77 into the Pentagon: 9:38 a.m., 9:41 a.m., and 9:45 a.m. I cite the 9:45 a.m. time because it is given by many different reporters, both as a designation of the minute the plane “pierced” the Pentagon and as the minute interviewed eyewitnesses observed the impact, beginning on September 11 and 12 (CNN broadcasts throughout the afternoon of September 11, Facts on File for September 11, 2001, September 12 articles in the New York Times, Newsday, Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Journal and Constitution, International Herald Tribune, Baltimore Sun). In the weeks and months that followed, 9:45 a.m. continued to be used in multiple reports both within any single journal (New York Times, September 13, 15, 16 and November 4, 2001) and across many different journals (for example, New Yorker, September 23; Boston Globe, November 23; CNN Live, December 15, 2001. The early time designation of 9:38 a.m. has been introduced into the picture by the Pentagon (at first using the figure of 9:37 a.m.). On September 19, Facts on File noted: “the Defense Department placed [the crash] at 9:37 a.m. despite previous reports of 9:45 a.m.”; and on the same day, the New York Times described 9:37 a.m. as the time “when the Pentagon estimates that the third hijacked jet crashed into the Pentagon.” The Pentagon has had a series of commemorations, each beginning at 9:38 a.m. (starting with the three-month ceremony on December 11) and reporters have used this time in covering those events. But as the September through December publication dates listed above indicate, many journals and broadcasts have continued to use the 9:45 a.m. minute in describing the crash of the plane itself.

11. Presumably only the first of the two World Trade Center collisions was needed for the nation to know this second piece of information, that the seized planes would not land safely. But if one wants to base this knowledge on the destruction of both World Trade Center towers (hit at 8:47 a.m. and 9:02 a.m.), then the nation had 43 minutes in which it knew that multiple planes were involved, that Flight 77 was likely to be one of the planes (since it had disappeared from radar even before the second tower was hit), and that no safe landing was likely.

12. Using the collision time of 9:38 a.m. (rather than 9:45 a.m.), the two periods would be one hour and thirteen minutes and forty-eight minutes.

13. The times for the loss of radio and transponder are included in Glen Johnson’s in-depth account, “Probe Reconstructs Horror,” Boston Globe, 23 November 2001, 44–45.

14. At this point, American Airlines lacks any clear idea of the plane’s location. At 9:09 a.m., American Airlines thinks Flight 77 may have gone into second World Trade Center tower.

15. Barbara Olson also places a second call to the Justice Department several minutes later.

16. The timetable for both the air controllers’ and pilots’ sightings are given in Matthew L. Wald and Kevin Sack, “A Nation Challenged: The Tapes,” New York Times, 16 October 2001, 1.

17. The exact flight path must by now have been precisely reconstructed, but it does not yet appear to be part of the public record. In any event, we know that the plane did not steadily circle Washington, D.C., or any other densely populated spot.

18. These mileage estimates are based on the supposition that Flight 77 was flying at the same 500-mph speed at which World Trade Center planes were flying as they moved down the Hudson Valley at twice the legal airspeed. Both air traffic controllers and the C-130 pilots described Flight 77 as “fast moving.” (The New York Times, 16 October 2001, states that Flight 77 was moving at 500 mph when it hit the Pentagon. U.S. News and World Report, 10 December 2001, says the impact took place at a speed of 350 MPH).

19. See David Bond’s detailed account in “Crisis at Herndon: 11 Airplanes Astray,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, 17 December 2001, 96ff.

20. New York Times, 16 October 2001.

21. A retired official of the F.A.A. said, several days after the event, “There is no category of ‘enemy airliners’” and added that he could recall no incident in which a military plane had ever fired on a civilian plane. Matthew L. Wald, “After the Attacks: Sky Rules,” New York Times, 15 September 2001, 1. Major General Mike J. Haugen said that the crash of United Flight 93 initiated by the passengers “kept us from having to do the unthinkable . . . and that is to use your own weapons and own training against your own citizens” (New York Times, 16 October 2001).

22. Peter Beaumont, “Bin Laden in Plot to Bomb City: Terror Blueprint for Attack on London,” The Observer, 16 December 2001, 1. Italics added.

23. Tim Ripley, “Global Army Controlled from a Suburban Bunker,” The Scotsman, 2 October 2001, 6. Italics added.

24. Chris Buckland, “Meeting Hell with Horror,” News of the World, 30 September 2001. Italics added.

25. For full analyses of the distributive intention of the right to bear arms see Elaine Scarry, “War and the Social Contract: Nuclear Policy, Distribution, and the Right to Bear Arms,” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 139 (May l991): 1257–1316; and Akhil Reed Amar, The Bill of Rights (Yale Univ. Press, 1998), 46-63.

26. Most of the narrative details of Flight 93 that follow here as well as in figure 2 come from two sources: “Forty Lives, One Destiny: Fighting Back in the Face of Terror,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 28 October 2001, a 6,000-word study; and “Final Words from Flight 93,” U.S. News and World Report 131:18 (29 October 2001), 32f, a story coauthored by Angie Cannon, Janet Rae-Dupree, Suzie Larsen, and Cynthia Salter. The passenger and crew quotations provided in these two in-depth news stories recur (with small variations) in Jere Longman, Among the Heroes: United Flight 93 and the Passengers and Crew Who Fought Back (HarperCollins, 2002), a book which became available after the writing of this article was complete. It contains richly textured portraits of the 37 passengers and seven crew (both their backgrounds and their actions on September 11). Although the book’s purpose is to celebrate the passengers and crew of Flight 93, rather than to raise questions about U.S. defense, the preface notes that “they accomplished what security guards and military pilots and government officials could not” (x).

27. The overall time frame, from the moment the passengers first expressed their knowledge of the seizure at 9:31 a.m. to the moment the plane was on the ground at 10:10 a.m., is thirty-nine minutes: the reader may therefore wish to assess the sequence of steps in terms of thirty-nine rather than twenty-three minutes. I have used the twenty-three–minute frame because we only have information up through the moment the passengers collectively decided to act, not during the moments when control of the plane was wrestled over or during the time the plane fell toward the ground (the transcript of the voice recorder from the plane that would provide information about this period has so far been withheld from the public by the FBI).

28. In Jeremy Glick’s case, family members used a second phone to contact the New York State Police, who then “patched in” to Jeremy Glick’s phone call and listened to the ongoing descriptions of the hijacking he was giving.

29. The withholding of the plane’s voice tape from the public has permitted rumors to exist that the military shot the plane down (despite consistent government statements that the military took no action). The open passenger phone lines verify that quite apart from whatever the military did or did not do, the passengers themselves did act. The fact that government officials who have heard the plane’s voice tape (most notably President Bush) have publicly celebrated the courage of the passengers reinforces what the public phone lines themselves already make clear.

30. Kanan Makiya and Hassan Mneimneh, translators and interpreters, “Manual for a ‘Raid’,” in New York Review of Books, 17 January 2002, 18.

31. Perhaps more accurately, they are told that such matters are beyond their own agency: “All [the United States’] . . . equipment and all their gates and all their technology do not do benefit or harm except with the permission of God.” In contrast, harm from resistant passengers is not left to God but is something the manual requires the hijackers to address.

32. They left a wide margin of safety: many miles of terrain still stood between the plane and whatever target in Washington or New York was the terrorists’ destination.

33. A Coast Guard plane, already in the air, got close enough to instruct him by hand signals to land, but the boy declined to follow these instructions. See Brad Smith, “Skyscraper Hit,” Tampa Tribune, 6 January 2002, 1.

34. The events on the Pennsylvania plane clearly depended on the two-directional exchange of information between passengers and friends on the ground. There is probably a useful generalization that can be made here. Communication on planes between passengers and people on the ground should be made as easy as possible, since the most likely way passengers will get crucial information in an emergency is by being able to speak with friends or family. Emergency telephone links between passengers and government officials (FBI, FAA, Air Force, Pentagon) are much less likely to be helpful because in our present era government officials do not believe in two-directional exchanges of information with citizens.

35. Congressional testimony explaining the cessation of round-the-clock flights (Operation Noble Eagle) focused on the expense in dollars ($50 million a week), in use of airmen (11,000 airmen in comparison with 14,000 airmen for the war in Afghanistan, according to the New York Times, 18 March 2002), and in wear and tear on the planes, rather than on the futility of this form of defense. However, the Air Force chief of staff testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that air marshals inside the planes themselves were a more efficient solution than the fighter jets (Gen. John P. Jumper, March 7, 2002, Senate Armed Services Committee hearing). Because Gen. Jumper was told by Senator Warner that he should give his assessment of the combat air patrols twice—first in a nonclassified and then in a classified form—we do not know his full thoughts on the matter.

36. For example, President Bush’s June 1, 2002, graduation speech at West Point had three features which together seemed to make it an announcement (however blurry and genial) of the possibility of a nuclear first strike: it stressed preemptive action; it left the form of preemption (ground invasion, air strike) unspecified; and it explicitly summoned nuclear weapons, rejecting as inadequate and “too late” the Cold War strategy of “massive retaliation.” Transcript, Federal News Service, June 1, 2002. Although immediate news coverage did not mention the word “nuclear,” the phrases “first strike” and “preemptive first strike” were widely used in the United States (on ABC News, for example, where Sam Donaldson asked, “When do we take these other nations out?”) and internationally (headlines for the London Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Independent, and The Herald of Glasgow all described President Bush as warning of a “first strike,” and the Financial Times emphasized “pre-emptive, unilateral action”).

37. Reed Hundt, “A Better Network for Emergency Communications,” New York Times, 25 December 2001. Discussions of phone use during emergencies often pose the choice of whether we want citizens or instead firemen to have phone access. But during the days following September 11, there were many reports of both citizens and firemen having difficulty completing calls. According to an article in Government Executive (October 2001), government executives (including financial leaders, federal executives, utility managers, and relief workers) had a 95 percent success rate in making calls during this period because they are beneficiaries of Government Emergency Telecommunication Service (GETS), which gives their calls priority over ordinary users of “AT&T, Spring, and WorldCom.”

38. For discusssion of the democratic structures violated by nuclear weapons see Elaine Scarry, “War and the Social Contract” and “Declaration of War.” (See notes 3 and 25.)

39. See Paul Bracken, Fire in the East: The Rise of Asian Military Power and the Second Nuclear Age (HarperCollins, 1999), 64.

40. On the decoy problem, see Stephen Weinberg, “Can Missile Defense Work,” New York Review of Books, 14 February 2002: “The big problem, as it has been since the days of Nike X, is that any number of interceptor missiles could be used up in attacking decoys that had been sent by the attacker along with its warheads” (42); and Ted Postol, “What’s Wrong With Missile Defense?” Boston Review 26:5 (October/November 2001), 40–45.

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

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