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.