by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
September 30, 2002
THE PEOPLE'S ROLE IN NATIONAL SECURITY
DUMMERSTON, Vt. - Who can respond most effectively to the threats of terrorism - the people or the government?
Two incidents from the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on America show the answer to that question.
Harvard professor Elaine Scarry wrote a piece for the Sept. 22 edition of the Boston Sunday Globe that compared what happened on United Airlines Flight 93 - where passengers successfully overpowered their hijackers and prevented the plane from possibly striking a target in Washington, D.C. - to what happened on American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon.
With Flight 77, Scarry points out the Pentagon had a one hour and 21 minute warning that several airliners were simultaneously hijacked and knew within an hour that Flight 77 was a hijacked plane and that two other hijacked planes had hit the World Trade Center in New York. Despite one of the world's most elaborate air defense systems, Scarry concludes that "on Sept. 11, the Pentagon could not defend the Pentagon, let alone the rest of the country."
Within the same time frame, the outcome of Flight 93 was totally different. Within about 23 minutes, Scarry said the passengers found out via airfone and cell phone calls that the World Trade Center had been attacked. They identified the location of all the hijackers on the plane. They were able to consult with each other on a plan of action and even take a vote. Some even had time enough to give their last goodbyes to their loved ones before their fateful decision to rush the hijackers and wrest the controls from them. All this in less than a half hour!
A look at these outcomes side-by-side, Scarry wrote, reveals "two different conceptions of national defense: one model is authoritarian, centralized, top down; the other is distributed and egalitarian and accords with what the Framers of the Constitution expected of the citizenry."
The egalitarian model also came out in one of the great stories from Sept. 11 that sadly was ignored by the news media. Spontaneously, with only minimal guidance from the Coast Guard, hundreds of private and commercial boats, ships and ferries from the New York-New Jersey region mobilized to aid a stricken city. With the highways, subways and train service all inoperable, they provided a vital link to the city.
They evacuated tens of thousands of people from lower Manhattan and brought in supplies for rescue crews. Nobody commanded them to do it. It was done out of the reflexive sense of helpfulness and cooperation that almost always happens in emergency situations.
Although the corporate media ignored it for the most part, you can read a detailed account, complete with photos, of the 9/11 Navy at http://www.fireboat.org/press/prof_mariner_jan02_1.asp.
There were many scenes of spontaneous and cooperative efforts in New York that day. Consider that 90 percent of the people who were in the World Trade Center towers escaped. Wasn't there panic and disorganization? Professor Kathleen Tierney, director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware, took a closer look and found instead that the behavior of New Yorkers on Sept. 11 was consistent with what normally happens in a disaster.
"The response to the Sept. 11 tragedy was so effective precisely because it was not centrally directed and controlled," Tierney wrote in "Strength of a City: A Disaster Research Perspective on the World Trade Center Attack," a paper she presented in August at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. "Instead it was flexible, adaptive and focused on handling problems as they emerged. ... Social bonds remained intact, and evacuees were supportive of one another even under extremely high-threat conditions."
(The full text of Tierney's paper can be found at http://www.ssrc.org/sept11/essays/tierney.htm).
There was no need for a Department of Homeland Security to direct the first response to the New York attack. As was the case on Flight 93, in the midst of unbelievable horror, ordinary people behaved effectively, intelligently and courageously.
But the Bush administration isn't interested in democracy in any form, especially when comes to national security. Aided by a compliant news media, the lessons of the effectiveness of individual initiative and collective action during the Sept. 11 attacks have been ignored in favor of more control and social regimentation by the federal government.
National security and public safety are too important to be left to our leaders alone, especially when looking at the many failures of the top-down approach. The people must be trusted. When the so-called "professionals" step aside and let the common sense and creativity of the citizens of this nation come through, we can respond to any crisis and triumph.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books).