Were Bravest Sent on a Suicide Mission?

Here dead lie we

because we did not choose

To live and shame the land

from whence we sprung.

Life, to be sure,

is nothing much to lose,

But young men think it is,

and we were young.

–A.E. Housman, More Poems , 1936

I’ve carried those lines around in my head for 50 years now. Never have they seemed more apposite than in the wake of the terrible, terrible toll exacted on the city’s uniformed services on Sept. 11. So much innocence, so much grief, so much expenditure of the two commodities that, of all Nature’s blessings, are in shortest supply in this present-day world: valor and a devotion to duty.

I don’t think we have to ask who the heroes were. But some people appear not to know.

The assertion was made last Thursday in a respected national forum–I will not dignify the writer or sully this space by naming her–”that the great leaders in our time of trauma were the reporters and anchors and producers of the networks and news stations [Jennings, Brokaw, etc.], and including guests like Richard Holbrooke and Norman Schwarzkopf and Tom Clancy, who added knowledge and context and well-grounded viewpoints. They all did that knowing it was dangerous where they were, knowing it could get worse, that the weapons or targets could change. They stood their ground and did their jobs. Those anchors and reporters, they led us Tuesday, with cool and warmth, with intelligence and deep professionalism. And every one of them must have known that he, or she, was one way or another in harm’s way. These men and women of the media should get a mass Medal of Freedom the next time it’s given. They really helped our country.”

The italics are mine, the only way I can express my disgust and my disbelief that anyone could write, or anyone could print, something like that at a time like this.

And yet ….

It is the business of this column to ask tough questions, to make observations bound to be unpopular in an age in which a euphemistic spin is sought for the most awful occasions, in which nonsense like the foregoing is freely talked when silence–if this is all you can think of to say–would be the sensible, sensitive and decent course. It is the philosophy of this writer to ask these questions when they are still fresh and searing, before they disappear into the numbing void of “referred to study group/fact-finding board/committee.”

A certain amount has been said on the airwaves about a lack of preparedness, about a failure of our intelligence capabilities. No doubt this is true. I would urge anyone interested in finding out for themselves to log onto http://pubs.marshallcenter.org/732 and read Lessons No. 4 and No. 6 of “Terrorism and Its Implications for Democratic States,” which was published in 1999. Lessons No. 4–”What Is the Future Face of Terrorism?”–begins: “In June 1994, [the Pentagon] … published one of the most thoughtful and accurate predictions of terrorism ever written …. Regrettably, this prophetic study was considered too alarmist and far-fetched. It was quietly filed and given a typical bureaucratic death.” A bureaucratic death is presumably easier to take than the terrifying fate that claimed thousands of human beings on Sept. 11.

What concerns me isn’t terrorism so much as another failure of preparedness that I can express only with a premise and a series of questions.

The premise is this: that two suicide missions were carried out at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11–one in the name of fanaticism and all that is evil in man, the other in the name of courage and selflessness and every other bright feather in the wings on which fly the better angels of our nature.

I cannot escape the feeling that the loss of more than 400 firemen, rescue-squad workers, police and other brave souls who died in the line of duty in the collapse of the south tower was inevitable. I cannot escape the feeling that they went into a situation in which the odds against their coming out were almost insuperable. That the task they were dispatched to perform–to climb 50 or 60 stories against a plunging current of thousands of panicked people in order to fight a fire and perform rescue operations–could not have been accomplished by any power on earth. That there must have been–should have been–some way to cut those awful odds.

So here are my questions; I will keep my own further answers, speculations and suspicions to myself. See how you, Dear Reader, respond. Has any of this occurred to you?

Was there no on-scene engineering expertise available to quickly calculate that the temperatures of those huge quantities of burning jet fuel would very likely compromise the structure? Have we no way of fighting fires–or rescuing workers–in the uppermost stories of a high-rise other than by sending firefighters to climb 50 (or 60, or 70) flights of stairs? What about helicopters spraying foam or the other chemicals they use to fight forest fires? Could this have reduced the infernal temperatures that buckled the structure? Sure, the circumstances of Sept. 11 were horrifyingly unique, but what if there had been a duplication at Windows on the World of the fire that consumed the Grand Central Oyster Bar a few years ago?

Believe me, it is not my intention to second-guess and add to the pain by provoking rancor. But people were working at 1,000 feet in the air–and will be in the future, if all this brave talk of rebuilding the W.T.C. bigger and taller is carried out. Is there no better way to give them a better chance in the event of a catastrophe? Or must we risk another Light Brigade of the bravest men in our society?

On a second front, sober and sobering reflection about who we are is called for.

Much has been made of the sophistication of this terrorist operation–of the knowledge of technology, sedulous planning, skill in the use of the Internet, etc. Technically, there is no doubt it was brilliant in conception, not least because it displayed a quality of mind we used to be proud of in this country: the common sense to see that a simple, even a primitive solution (lots of hijackers armed with knives and box-cutters) was the only way to go. As a novelist, I fancy myself an ingenious plot fabricator, and there are dozens like me writing thrillers in Hollywood with bombs and high-tech devices and private jets– Day of the Jackal stuff, Air Force One stuff–but something this straightforward never occurs to any of us. Not this scenario.

What truly troubles me, though, is the degree to which the terrorists understood us as a culture, as a society. This was their real advantage, an insight as essential to their mission as the knowledge of how to guide a stolen airliner to the point of impact. On each of the four hijacked airliners, passengers and crew outnumbered the hijackers by between 12 and 20 to 1: good odds against people armed only with knives for passengers with bags to use as shields, laptops that can be swung like clubs. Indeed, just after Christmas, passengers on a Kenya-bound flight rose up and subdued a suicide-bent hijacker who stormed the cockpit of a British Airways jetliner.

But the odds are not good if you pit people who value individual life against people who don’t. Indeed, the odds vanish, and the advantage lies entirely with the man in the mask and the wish to be with Allah. I think it worth noting that when the valiant young man on the plane that crashed near Pittsburgh told his wife via cell phone that he and some other passengers, recognizing the inevitability of doom, were going to do something, her first reaction–her American first reaction–was to beseech him to sit still and not draw attention to himself. Who can blame her? I ask myself how I would have reacted. I am not by nature physically courageous, and I cannot say I would have acted differently myself. Very likely, I too would have sat there numbly, entrusting myself to people who, having no thought for their own lives, could not possibly have had an instant’s concern for mine.

And this is what we are up against. It will require us to examine not only who the enemy is, but who we are. We are not going to like what we find–and we may like even less what we will be obliged, at least in part, to become.