September 2002

You are browsing the site archives for September 2002.

Wow. This blog’s stats have shot up noticably due to an amazing number of visits from people wanting to know more about Madelyne Toogood. Weirdly, several of them appear to be looking for nude pictures of her. I still don’t really think this story is worth the ridiculous amount of coverage it’s been getting, but I’m beginning to understand…

If I ran a big-time news service, one of my policies would be to only run items as news that are really news. Here’s an example:

Why is it news when Madelyne Gorman Toogood allegedly beats her daughter? She’s the Indiana woman who got caught on a parking lot video tape apparently punching her daughter in the backseat of her car. Child abuse is obviously a bad thing, but as these cases go, this one looks pretty routine. The violence was not extreme or unusual, just a mother beating on her kid. Lots of people beat their children, and lots of them get caught, so that’s not unusual either. This isn’t even a case of a common event happening to famous people: Neither Ms. Toogood nor her daughter Martha were in the public eye before this incident.

The story of Madelyne Toogood is news only because it was caught on video and played on network television. Thus, we’ve reached the sad situation where a subject is news only because it is news.

Modern customer relations can be pretty strange. My wife bought a Dell laptop a few years ago, and that model turns out to have some problems with the batteries. Some unforeseen interaction with the charger can cause them to overheat and catch fire. It’s only actually happened once, and no one was hurt, but there was a class action lawsuit that has now reached a settlement. She just got a letter from Dell with the following salutation:

Dear Settlement Class Member and Valued Dell Customer:

Only in America.

John Kass’s explanation of why Bob Greene had to be asked to resign is a little overwrought:

She was in high school, brought to this newspaper by her parents. They trusted and respected him. They were in awe of him.

And he did what he did with their daughter.

I don’t care about sex lives of reporters or politicians. That’s not my business or yours either, as long as they’re grown-ups and as long as they don’t use the institutions they represent to close the deal.

Her parents trusted the Tribune enough to bring their daughter here to interview a top columnist. A bit later, the columnist and the girl were in bed together.

Technically, she was of legal age. And at that age, and just before, young women begin to learn of the power their bodies have over men.

But she was a kid, and he wasn’t a kid.

They were in awe of a journalist? So what happened? Did Bob Greene used his Journalist Super Powers to cloud her mind and seduce her? Kass is complaining that he brought her to the Tribune Tower, and used its atmoshpere of…something…to seduce her. Oh yeah, I’m sure that really turns on the ladies. (“Dear Penthouse Forum: A young lady was visiting me in my office at the newspaper. As our meeting wore on, I could tell she was turned on by all the sounds and smells of a major newspaper in the heat of the day. Coyly, she asked if we could go down to the press rooms and feel the vibrations of the…”) Get a grip, man. Maybe I’ve seen too many movies, but I would have expected half the male journalists in the building to try to make time with her, and half of those would try to finagle the parents into buying the drinks.

As Eugene Volokh points out, much of Kass’s argument hinges on the woman acting foolishly out of youth and inexperience. So what was Bob Greene’s excuse? A man in his mid-40’s getting all bothered over a high school kid is also acting foolishly.

This is a like those do-gooders who, when a pair of college students get drunk and get it on, want to prosecute only the male for rape. From what we’ve heard so far, Greene’s the one who’s paying a heavy price. He’s the bigger fool.

To be fair, it may yet turn out that the young lady suffered from this encounter, but unless it was illegal suffering, I don’t see how it becomes an employment issue. I’m not saying Greene is a nice guy here, not someone I’d want to be associated with in public, but I can say that about quite a few people I know, and they still get to keep their jobs.

In an amazing bit of local news, Chicago Tribune Columnist Bob Greene has resigned under pressure for “inappropriate sexual conduct some years ago with a girl in her late teens whom he met in connection with his newspaper column.” I quoted last part exactly because as fellow blogger and actual journalist Bill Dennis points out, Greene’s activities aren’t spelled out too clearly. Had it been anyone other than one of their own, the Tribune would have been much more explicit.

I tried to look up Illinois law to figure out what sort of legal trouble he might be in. These laws are clearly not written for non-lawyers like me. I think that Bob Greene is old enough that he’s in big trouble if the girl was under 17.

(What a mess! If I were a teenager in this state, I wouldn’t have a clue what activities are prohibited by these laws. There are age cutoffs for the victim at 9, 13, and 17, and a variety of different definitions of conduct that overlap in complex and seemingly contradictory ways. Most of the applicable stuff is in the Bodily Harm section, although some of the Sex Offenses might apply as well.)

I wasn’t a big fan of Bob Greene’s because his subjects usually didn’t interest me, but he always seemed like a nice guy in his columns. I’d like to think that this is all just some over-reaction, but…Bob Greene was huge around here. I’m cynical enough to believe that the Tribune management must have tried pretty hard to interpret its journalistic ethics and standards in some way that would keep him on the job. I’m afraid it means something that they decided to ask for his resignation.


Perhaps I’m underestimating the Tribune’s commitment to their ethics policies, and therefore overestimating Greene’s transgressions, but it’s hard to believe they would nail him for personal misconduct that doesn’t rise to the level of criminality or affect the credibility of his writing. However, if his credibility is in doubt, the Tribune owes us enough of an explanation for us to perform our own re-evaluation of his writing.


According to a new Tribune story, Bob Greene had a dinner date with a high school student who had visited his office for a school project. She was old enough to consent to sex, and they apparently got it on. No big deal, and certainly none of the Tribune‘s business because she wasn’t a source or subject of any story. However, Greene later wrote a piece about her, presumably without describing his relationship with her, and that’s what hung him up with the ethics policy. The more we learn, the smaller this story gets.

[Note: This article has been updated to remove dead links.]

In the spirit of the mathematicians’ Erdos Number, I got the idea to introduce an InstaPundit number. I was going to call it a Reynolds Number because that sounds more scientific, but it turns out that designation is already used by fluid dynamics folks. Actually, it also turns out that Erik Jones at The Bind invented the InstaPundit Number a few months ago, but since he’s apparently stopped maintaining that site, maybe he won’t find out.

My InstaPundit number is 3, using this path:

InstaPundit –> No Watermelons Allowed –> Bill’s Content –> WindyPundit

(There is a webring link from Watermelons to me, but since the owners of sites don’t choose their webring relationships, I don’t think it should count.)

In one my September 11th anniversary postings I mentioned my initial back-of-the-envelope calculations on the World Trade Center death toll. My first thought had been that the World Trade Center holds 50,000 people and I might have just seen them all die. My brain eventually started working and I realized that people must have been streaming down the emergency stairs the whole time, even if the video didn’t show them. My new figure of 20,000 dead was still pretty scary. Below, I mentioned how relieved I was that the death toll was so much smaller, and I didn’t care why.

It turns out I cared enough to look it up after all. Here’s my original calculation: I guessed that south tower had stood about an hour and the north for 90 minutes. I had read somewhere that here in Chicago fire stairs are supposed to permit 45 people per minute to exit. I had no idea how many stairwells the towers had, but I guessed four in each tower. Multiply that out and 45*60*4=10800 escaped from the south tower and 45*90*4=16200 escaped from the north tower, totaling 10800+16200=27000 escapees, leaving 50000-27000=23000 still in the towers.

I was wrong on every count. The bad news was that the towers only had three stairwells each. The good news was that the population figure for the World Trade Center, which turned out to be 58000, was for the entire complex of buildings. The towers only hold about 10000 people each and at 8:46 in the morning, many of those desks were empty, leaving each tower with an estimated population of no more than 7000 people. An added bonus is that that the towers lasted 73 and 103 minutes. Do the math again, and 45*73*3=9855 could have escaped from the south tower and 45*103*3=16200 could have escaped from the north tower.

In other words, everyone was able to escape except for those killed by the plane crashes or trapped above the crash floors. In the south tower, many people above the crash floor got out because they started leaving when the other tower was hit. A handful managed to escape from above the crash site. In the north tower, the 91st floor was the dividing line. Everyone on it and most of those below escaped and survived. No one above it survived.

The evacuation from the twin towers is one of the biggest success stories of 9/11. When the World Trade Center was first attacked by terrorists in 1993, it took four hours to evacuate the towers. This was judged unacceptable, and the buildings were given $90 million worth of safety improvements. A backup generator was installed, along with emergency stairwell lighting and better exit marking signs. Disabled workers were provided with special chairs that could be carried down the stairs by two volunteers. Fire wardens were appointed on each floor and regular escape drills were conducted. The terrorists who attacked the towers in 1993 probably spurred improvements that saved thousands of lives.

A good description of the evacuation is in Dennis Cauchon’s For many on Sept. 11, survival was no accident in USA Today. A detailed engineering description can be found in the House Committee on Science’s World Trade Center Building Performance Study. The Executive Summary is a worthwhile overview. Chapter 1 gives a good overview of the events of the day at the World Trade Center in engineering terms. Chapter 2 discusses the engineering and collapse of the twin towers. Other chapters discuss the other damaged buildings at the site, including buildings 5 and 7, which suffered collapses apparently due to fires, something which had never before happened to protected steel frame buildings anywhere in the world. Finally, chapter 8 contains a list of conclusions and recommendations. Nothing like this has ever happened before, so this is the first chance engineers have had to study these kinds of events outside of computer models. Many of the recommendations are for additional studies of still poorly understood events on that day.

I’m writing today about a few things I would have written about last year if I’d had somewhere to write.

When last year’s attacks started, President Bush was down in Florida. He broke off what he was doing and immediately boarded Air Force One. Instead of flying back to Washington, he flew to an Air Force base in Louisiana where he taped a message for broadcast to the American people. He then flew to Offutt Air Force Base, before finally flying home to Washington. Several commentators gave him hell for that, saying that he should have stood up to the Secret Service and insisted on returning to Washington.

I strongly disagree. In those first few hours, no one knew what else might happen. Were the four planes the only attack, or were there others? Was it over, or was this the first move in a larger campaign? Were there trucks filled with explosives in Washington, ready to crash the Whitehouse gates? Chemical weapons? Could there be terrorists with smuggled anti-aircraft missiles ready to shoot down Air Force One when it predictably arrived at Andrews? Could we even rule out a nuclear bomb?

It’s easy to look back now and see that it was only a bunch of guys with box-cutters, but no one knew that then. There were certainly plenty of troubling things happening that day. A plane was reportedly stuck on the ground and surrounded by SWAT teams. There were rumors of more planes and helicopters on the way. Commercial jets were still flying, including many arriving from overseas. There was a report of a car bomb outside the State department. There were credible threats against Air Force One. It’s true that all these things seemed pretty unlikely, but so did suicide attacks using hijacked commercial passenger jets.

Military entities have plans for dealing with dangerous situations. Some of them are specific plans for specific problems, but there’s always a plan for unknown problems. On a naval vessel, the plan is called general quarters. It’s a controlled freak-out in which the ship prepares for combat action. No matter where they are, everyone goes to their assigned stations. The command centers are staffed, the weapons are loaded, the damage control teams are positioned. They are prepared for whatever the situation throws at them.

That’s a general reaction for our military in many situations: When something unexpected happens, sound the alarm and prepare for the worst. Some of the United State’s enemies have nuclear weapons, so preparing for the worst involves awesome national-level plans for action when something unexpected and frightening happens. These plans include protecting the President so our enemies can’t slow down our decision making by killing him early in the attack.

With Air Force One in flight and escorted by fighters over American-controlled airspace, the President was as near to invulnerable as anyone ever was. I suppose he could have stood up to the Secret Service and the military and insisted on flying to Washington, but I think it was time to listen to the advice of his experts, who had been preparing for attacks for decades. Some people thought he should have been making appearances and looking like a leader. I think he did the right thing by flying to Offutt Air Force Base, home of Strategic Air Command, from which he could command all the conventional and nuclear forces of the United States. That worked for me.

I’m writing today about a few things I would have written about last year if I’d had somewhere to write.

In the wake of 9/11, the question arose of how to tell the difference between war and terrorism. In particular, a lot of people tried to come up with a definition that made the attacks of 9/11 terrorism but not our response. How can it be that hijacked airplanes crashing into defenseless Americans in buildings are acts of terrorism, but glide bombs smashing into defenseless Afghans in buildings are a acts of war? It wouldn’t do to say that American attacks aren’t terrorism, but foreign attacks are. We need a definition that makes sense without being arbitrary.

Could it be that the 9/11 dead are civilians and the Enduring Freedom dead are soldiers? No, because some of the 9/11 victims were soldiers in the Pentagon, and most of the Afghan dead were civilians because Afghanistan didn’t have a formal army. So that’s not quite right. We can fix part of the problem by saying that the Afghan dead were combatants, and the 9/11 dead were non-combatants, thus avoiding the legalistic meaning of civilian in favor of a more practical description of behavior and activity. Anybody acting in support of a war is a combatant, which is how we justified our attacks on railroads and factories during World War II.

But aren’t we killing innocent non-combatant Afghans? Yes. We’re even killing Afghans who are on our side. This is a nearly inevitable consequence of warfare, especially warfare that uses modern long-distance weapons. In fact, if we could avoid all harm to innocents, it wouldn’t even be war. It would be law enforcement. Contemporary liberal justice systems strive to punish only the guilty while harming none of the innocent. War is what happens when justice is not possible. If Afghanistan had a working liberal democratic government, then the responsible parties would have been hunted down, arrested, and punished by the Afghan justice system. The killing of innocents as a side effect of war doesn’t make the war into terrorism. Intent matters.

Perhaps we should define terrorism as the intentional killing of non-combatants. That’s not quite strong enough. We know American war efforts will kill non-combatants with statistical near-certainty. We can’t very well claim not to intend to kill non-combatants when we know they’re going to die. An arsonist who sets fire to an inhabited building can’t claim he didn’t intend to kill the people inside. What’s happening is that we’re trying to stop combatants, and killing non-combatants is an unfortunate and unavoidable side effect. Purpose matters.

We’re almost there: Terrorism is any act committed with the purpose and intent of killing non-combatants. By this definition, our attacks against Al Queda are not terrorism. Likewise, the attacks against the World Trade Center and the passengers of all four planes are terrorism. What about the attack on the Pentagon? The people in the Pentagon were acting in support of our military, and were therefore clearly combatants, right?

Maybe. Not that it matters. Even if we classify all the attacks of 9/11 as warfare instead of terrorism, it doesn’t change the nature of our response. Terrorist acts between nations are acts of war.

I would argue that the people in the Pentagon were not combatants in this case, because they were not acting in support of a war. Yes, many of them were warriors, but there was no war, so the attacks did not further anyone’s war goals. In this, the attacks of 9/11 differed from the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese were trying to suppress U.S. naval activity in the Pacific to advance their goals of conquest. Attacking the Pentagon did not further the aims of any war. It was done just to cause fear and death.

While looking up information to write another post, I stumbled across this old Charles Murtaugh posting:

So here’s my first blog rant of Spring. The papers have been full of detailed scientific stories about the physical circumstances that led to the collapse of the World Trade Center. I.e., did the physical impact of the hijacked planes make a difference, or was the fire sufficient to cause the collapse, were the fire suppression systems in the towers inadequate, was there something wrong with the fireproofing insulation, blah blah blah. And now apparently a two-year, $16 million federal study is underway to consider changes to building codes and standards, to help prevent this happening again.

Excuse me, but this is just so September 10th. Asking these questions is like asking why Daniel Pearl died, and concluding that he died because of lack of oxygen to the brain. Well, yes, that’s because his throat was slit by a fucking terrorist! And the World Trade Center collapsed because planes were hijacked and flown into it! Any response to prevent it happening again that is not based on this first cause, rather than on the inconsequential and contingent secondary causes, is pathetic and misguided. And, unfortunately, depressingly, predictably, very American.

I don’t know what programs Murtaugh saw, but I agree that plane-proofing is a very American response, and I think it’s a great idea.

First of all, these reports were fascinating to anyone with even a passing interest in engineering. The way the towers collapsed surprised a lot of people, engineers included, and most surprising phenomena are worth further investigation.

Second, while a good offense may be the best defense, the second best defense is defense in depth. In fact, a good offense is part of a deep defense.

A single line of defense is brittle: If it fails, you’re doomed. With multiple lines of defense, you have a fallback against failure of one of your defenses.

You also force your enemies to go through a lot more work to win. If your house has a locked door, it forces an intruder to break it down or pick it before he can harm you. If you have an alarm, it forces him to move fast before the police arrive. If you have a dog, it forces him to fight the dog. If you have a gun, it forces him to fight you. However, if you have a locked door, a dog, an alarm, and a gun, it forces him to break down the door while fighting both you and your dog simultaneously, all before the police arrive. It’s a lot harder.

Currently, our country is planning extensive deep defenses to defend against another 9/11-style attack: We’re increasing airport security, encouraging passengers to fight back, stiffening passenger resistance with sky marshals, strengthening the cockpit doors, arming the pilots, patrolling the skies with F16‘s, and protecting targets with anti-aircraft missiles. Adding yet another layer of defense by hardening the targets is not a foolish idea.

I’m writing today about a few things I would have written about last year if I’d had somewhere to write.

Shortly after the attack on the World Trade Center, several people, including President Bush, called the perpetrators “cowards.” A mini-debate erupted over whether that term was appropriate. It’s a pointless argument. Naturally, I have an opinion.

Several folks to disagreed on the grounds that the hijackers clearly put their lives at risk (sacrificing them, in fact) to accomplish their goal. Politically Incorrect host Bill Maher got himself in a lot of trouble for saying “We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly.” There’s a hint of a good point here: If the terrorists were cowards for attacking people who can’t fight back, then so are we when we use our advanced weaponry. But that’s not right at all. In wartime, attacking your enemy in such a way that they can’t attack you isn’t cowardice, it’s good tactics. Clearly, “attacking people who can’t fight back” is a poor definition of cowardice.

President Bush’s definition of cowardice might be different, based on what he said here:

Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward. Make no mistake: the U.S. will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts.

Here, Bush seems to be calling the person who planned the attack, now known to be Osama bin Laden, a coward. Perhaps this is because he remains “faceless,” too scared to take responsibility for his acts. This a much better definition of cowardice, and might well apply. Of course, when you attack a superpower, not taking responsibility may also be a sign of wisdom.

A few years ago in Yemen, a couple of men linked to Al Queda piloted a small boat up to the USS Cole and set off a bomb, blowing a hole in the hull and killing 17 sailors. It wasn’t long before people, including President Clinton, called them “cowards.” I thought this was stupid and dangerous. These guys didn’t blow up some bar in a naval port, they attacked an armed and deployed American warship. That’s not a cowardly act. These guys were bold, and they were dedicated, and they were our enemies. There were more of them out there, and calling them cowards was just a way to stick our heads in the sand. It was a dangerous delusion.

For whatever it’s worth, I’ve always thought of cowardice as a personal failing. I once read an account by a cop describing an entry into an apartment during a criminal investigation. One of the occupants became belligerent and attacked him, at which point his partner ran away. Other cops arriving on the scene saw him running, but assumed he was chasing someone. That’s a coward. It’s not that he ran, it’s that he let down his partner. This definition doesn’t really tell us a lot about the terrorists of 9/11. That’s kind of my point: Whether the terrorists were cowardly is not important.

So, does this mean I think some of the terrorists have been brave? Yes, but so what? I don’t think our policy toward them should depend on their personal virtues or lack thereof. The German military during World War II was filled with bold and dedicated people, and we fought them to a total victory. That some of our enemy are courageous doesn’t make them any less our enemy. That some murderers are bold doesn’t make them any less murders.

I’m going to write today about a few things I would have written about last year if I’d had somewhere to write it. WindyPundit is not a diary blog, but I figured that on this anniversary of a very sad day I could indulge myself in a little bit of memory. I hope you’ll understand and bear with me.

First Word.

I had lost my job on Friday the 7th, and I was determined not to get lazy while I was laid off. On Monday the 10th, I got up, went out for some exercise, did some laundry and cleaning, and signed up for unemployment compensation. The date is my wife’s birthday, so we must have celebrated, but I can’t remember it at all. On Tuesday the 11th, I planned to exercise and then go to the bank to start setting up a business account for a one-man consulting company.

I was still lying in bed when my wife called to tell me that she’d heard on the radio that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. As I got up, I wondered if it was an accident or deliberate. It seemed unlikely that it would be deliberate, yet what were the chances of hitting one of the towers amid all the other buildings in New York? By the time I got up and flipped on CNN, I had my answer: both towers were burning from being hit by two planes. That had to be deliberate.

Passenger Jets.

I watched the replay as the second plane flew in from the right and passed behind the towers. I was wondering what we’d see when it hit. After all, the towers were still standing, so how hard could it have hit? A few seconds later an angry red fireball erupted from the side of the tower, spewing an enormous cloud of smoke and debris. I had never really understood how the word “angry” applied to fire before, but now I understood. The fire seemed almost malevolent. I knew that hundreds must have died, and I remember feeling the heat from a rush of adrenaline.

When I first saw the plane hit, I could see that it was big, but I didn’t think it was a passenger plane. There hadn’t been a hijacking in many years, so it seemed unlikely that someone had smuggled weapons onto two different planes and hijacked both of them. I figured maybe someone stole a few cargo planes from some airfield. That seemed a lot easier because the security for a cargo plane wouldn’t be as tight as for a passenger plane. I realized I was wrong when there was a report that several passenger planes had left their flight plans. Somebody had used planes full of people as weapons.

I remember wondering how the planes were flown. There’s no way a pilot would do that, no matter how much he was threatened. He’d have nothing to lose by fighting back, and pilots are generally pretty brave folks. Even if the terrorists somehow found the only pilot in commercial aviation so cowardly he would rather crash into an inhabited skyscraper than face a gun, there’s no way they could find two of them. The terrorists must have known how to fly a plane. Having seen too many movies, I pictured some disturbed and angry former pilot from some Middle Eastern air force.

While I was watching the coverage, word came from a correspondent at the Pentagon that they’d just heard an explosion. A few minutes later it was confirmed that the Pentagon had been attacked somehow, possibly another airplane. Then my wife called me. I could hear how frightened she was. She asked me if I thought this could happen here in Chicago, and I told her I thought it was possible. She worked far from the downtown area, so I figured (correctly) that she was safe.


As bad as things were, I was still mentally O.K. because the way I thought of it, the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center had failed. I had seen a movie called Path to Paradise: The Untold Story of the World Trade Center Bombing, about the first attack on the towers. The bombers had been almost laughably inept. The bomb was a hodge-podge of different explosives like some kid might make. The terrorists all talked about bringing down the towers, but in the end all did was kill six people who were standing next to the bomb when it went off. At the end of the movie, terrorist mastermind Ramzi Yousef looks at the towers and boasts that next time they will bring both of them down.

Well, it hadn’t worked. Oh, it was bad, there were hundreds dead on the planes, and probably hundreds more dead on the floors that had been hit. It seemed likely to me that many people above the impact floors would be trapped and might also die. Still, the towers had survived the impact. It was another fuck-up. They hadn’t won. Somehow that made it survivable. There wasn’t any noticeable flame, so I figured all the jet fuel had burned up in the initial fireballs. The towers would smolder for a while until the fire department got enough men and hoses to the fire floors to put them out, or until the fire ran out of stuff to burn. I wasn’t thinking clearly, and didn’t realize that a jet fueled for thousands of miles of flight would have created a much bigger fireball if all the fuel had burned. The smoke from the fire was much heavier than it looked to me. The fires were much larger than I thought.

I had been talking to some friends on the phone when I glanced back at the television and noticed that there was a large dust cloud where the top of the second tower should be. It was growing and moving as I watched. I realized that I had to be seeing the collapse of one of the towers. How far down would it go? Well, there was dust everywhere all up and down where the tower had been, so it must have collapsed all the way, the top part collapsing on the bottom. Jesus. What I had just seen must have killed hundreds rescue workers in the street below…and many more in the tower itself.

So what had happened? It could be that the airplane damaged it almost, but not quite, to the point of collapse, and that little pieces of it had been failing since the collision. A popped-rivet here, a cracked beam there, until finally something crucial gave way and the whole structure collapsed. The problem with that theory is that it seemed like the plane had to hit it just right. Even slightly harder, and the tower would have collapsed on impact; even slightly weaker, and the tower would stand for months. How unlikely is that? Far more likely that the impact had triggered a slow but progressive failure mode. A raging fire seemed like the obvious explanation. Eventually the fire burned or melted or weakened the structure to the point of collapse. This was bad news. If the collapsed tower had been hit just right by luck, it was unlikely that the other tower had also been hit the same way. But if the problem was fire, as I suspected, the same process was probably happening in the other tower. Sure enough, the other tower collapsed a little later.

I remember watching the crowds of rescue workers come pouring out of the smoke clouds. They all drifted to a stop and just stood there for a while. Then they gathered their gear and marched slowly back toward ground zero.


I thought about whether I or my family were at any particular risk in case this was only the opening move in a campaign of terrorism. The worst-case for us would probably be someone setting off a small nuclear weapon in downtown Chicago. It would probably go off at ground level, and I live about 10 miles away, so I’d be safe from any immediate blast or flash effects. My parents are equally far from downtown, and my wife worked far away in the north suburbs. On some level I knew this was just a case of having seen too many movies. Only in fiction do terrorists begin with a small attack and then wait before launching the big one to give the authorities time to catch them. In real life, they hit with everything they’ve got all at once. Normally, I don’t think of Chicago as a high-risk target, at least not while Washington D.C. is still standing.

Anyway, somehow determining that I and my loved ones were safe from fictional nuclear terrorists seemed to calm me down. With both towers down, and all four planes crashed, there was nothing more for me to see. I went to the bank, and later I went for my walk in the park. It’s a stupid cliche, but I wanted to finish the things I had planned, so the terrorists wouldn’t win. I remember that the walk in the park was disturbingly quiet. I live right under the flight patterns for Chicago’s O’Hare airport, but there wasn’t a plane in the sky. Every once in a while, I’d hear a little noise from a jet engine, but I couldn’t see a thing. I guess it was a military flight, perhaps an F16 flying a patrol over the city.

Sometime during the day, I remember hearing about the crash of flight 93. It was kind of shocking how the crash of a commercial jet could be only a sidebar to the main story.

I had just read a novel in which a terrorist killed everyone on a plane filled with passengers, which seemed pretty terrible at the time. But now terrorists had done that four times in a single day, and the passenger fatalities weren’t even the worst thing that had happened that day. Reality had become more shocking than fiction.

I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation of how many people could have escaped the towers. It looked pretty bad. In the movie The Siege, a building gets bombed and 600 people die. I knew the World Trade Center held 50,000 people. This was worse than any movie I’d seen. We would thank God if only 600 people died. I knew the timeline, and I could guess that New York fire codes probably require fire stairs to handle 45 people per minute, so the biggest variable was the number of stairwells, which I didn’t know. My best guess was that there were 20,000 people still inside the buildings when they fell. It eventually turned out my guess was high by a factor of ten. I don’t know what I figured wrong, and I don’t care.

It was beginning to sink in that this wasn’t just another terrorist incident. We were at war.

As the anniversary of 9/11 approaches, I’m pointing out some classic articles. I previously recommended Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts’ column from the 12th predicting the American response and Afghan-American Tamin Ansary’s widely-circulated article in Salon which reminded us that the Afghan people are also the Taliban’s victims.

For my last choice, I present Juan Gato’s answer to the question of why they hate us. People had for months explained that they hate us because we are free, or something to that effect, and I never really understood how that could be until I read this explanation. A couple of excerpts:

So why do they hate us? They hate us for the same reason Homer Simpson hates Ned Flanders. Now, now, I know a lot of people would be upset to be told that the United States is Ned Flanders and not Homer, but just bear with me here. The individual American may be Homer Simpson, but the country’s actions toward the Middle East have always had a bit more of a Ned Flanders feel to them.

Think about it. Ned Flanders, especially in the early episodes, was shown as a man who, because of his honesty and work ethic, always managed to have a nicer house, an easy to manage family, a wife with a higher butt, washboard abs, and generally a better overall life than Homer. Ned was always willing to help Homer at any instance, whether that be some cash, the loan of a power sander, or the invite to a BBQ.

Much the same right now. We, the West, are much more prosperous than the Middle East because of our ethos (property, secular rule of law, tolerance, blah blah blah), and they see it and are envious. But like Homer, they make no effort to reflect on themselves, choosing instead to seethe at the success of another and suspect that such success comes at a cost to them. Yet there we are, giving them aid in the Carl Sagan ranges, always willing to offer them a free beer from the keg even if it sometimes is mostly foam. Like Homer, given the chance, they would invite us into their homes on the odd chance they could get away with killing us.

There’s stuff I’m leaving out. Read the whole thing.