9/12

I’ve moved on to the 9/12 world, but yesterday Charles Stross wrote:

Twelve years ago today, a cell of angry, highly committed, and (by the standards of their peers) extremely well trained young men executed the simultaneous hijacking of four airliners, and used them to mount a suicide attack on those they perceived as their enemies.

What have we learned from this?

I thought it was an interesting question, and I left an answer in the comments on his post. I’ve decided to expand on it a bit here.

I don’t know what we learned, but I learned that my country was a hell of a lot closer to reverting to totalitarianism than I thought. We didn’t go all the way, or even get very close, but for years after 9/11, every moderate voice was shouted down as we stampeded away from freedom.

I learned that many people thought that the wall between national intelligence and domestic law enforcement was a flaw that allowed 9/11 to happen, rather than a carefully constructed bulwark against tyranny  After various abuses in the latter half of the last century, we made the explicit decision to rein in the security state by keeping those two activities separate. But after 9/11, a lot of people started insisting that this was a loophole we had to close. (Happy now, bitch?)

I learned that surprisingly few people thought that “Patriot Act”, “Homeland Security”, and “If you see something, say something” had creepy totalitarian overtones.

I learned that airport security could get much, much, much, much more annoying than it already was. And that my fellow Americans really don’t seem to mind having internal checkpoints.

I learned that there’s no such thing as a temporary security measure. When Congress started discussing emergency temporary security measures in the form of the Patriot Act right after 9/11, I remember thinking that, yeah, it could be a worthwhile tradeoff to tighten security for, say, the next 90 days, just to try to head off any terrorist plots in motion. Instead, Congress passed the Patriot Act with a two-year expiration, and then when it was about to expire, a bunch of national-security panic-mongers acted like the expiration date was a terrible oversight that had to be remedied, rather than an intentional policy decision.

I learned that anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bigotry was more common than I realized, although not as bad as it could have been.

I learned that every government agency in the country was willing to exploit fear of terrorism to get more money and power (and Lenco Bearcats — they really wanted those things). And that it would work out very well for most of them.

I learned that just because a President’s most vocal critics are idiots, that doesn’t translate in any way to redeeming qualities for the President.

I learned that grabbing foreigners and torturing them is something we do now.

I learned that when some pundits and politicians argued in favor of sacrificing personal liberties for national security, they don’t really mean the word sacrifice, because they don’t actually see us losing our liberties as a loss.

I learned that just because our leaders want to do a good thing (“Let’s democratize the Middle East!”) doesn’t mean they actually have a plan that will work. Really, I knew this before, but I somehow thought military planning would be more realistic…I don’t know why.

I’ve learned that the FISA courts act on a much broader scale than I ever anticipated. They don’t just let the NSA look at some people’s records, they let the NSA look at all our records.

I learned that after all the tough talk about the evils of the Bush administration, once the Democrats were in power they did nothing to punish anyone, and they took everything Bush did and ran with it.

I’ve written a few posts about 9/11 over the years. My wife used to work for Aon, which lost over 170 people on 9/11, and she’d met at least one of them, a nice guy named Jim Berger. And a few years ago, I stumbled across the memoral for U.S. Navy Commander Dan F. Shanower in Naperville. Then last year, I wrote about my discomfort over the 9/11 memorial in Manhattan, and I explained why I had nothing more to say about 9/11.

As it turns out, I have a few more thoughts about 9/11 bouncing around in my brain after all, and this is as good a time as any to ramble on about them.

First of all, remember that the number of Americans who died on 9/11 is much larger than the three thousand people who died in the World Trade Center, in the Pentagon, and on the hijacked airplanes. I don’t have an exact figure, but the true death toll for September 11, 2001, is much closer to ten thousand people.

That’s not some conspiracy theory, it’s mortality statistics. There are about 300 million people in the United States, and a small percentage of them die every day. If 9/11 was otherwise a typical day, it means that in addition to the 3000 deaths from terrorism, another 7000 Americans passed away for other reasons.

I can’t get it out of my head that the families of some of those people have got to feel a bit…cheated, maybe? Imagine, for example, the wife of some liquor store clerk who was shot to death in a robbery on the night of September 10th, 2001. She wakes up the next morning for one of the worst days of her life, only to discover that nobody seems to care.

I don’t want to be all holier-than-thou about this, but just this once, when we think of the people who died on 9/11, let’s try to think of all the people who died on 9/11.

On another matter, I’m bothered by how often we we make the mistake of judging people’s actions by the results, rather than by the expected probability distribution when they acted. Consider a guy who buys a lottery ticket and wins a million bucks. Was he smart to buy that lottery ticket? If you say yes, because he won all that money, you’re part of the problem.

At the time he made the decision and acted by purchasing a ticket, he didn’t know he was going to win. All he knew is that there was a very small chance he would win, and a much larger chance he would lose. A typical state lottery probably only gives away half the money as prizes, which means that, speaking in terms of probability (and simplifying a lot), he could expect to lose half of what he spent on the ticket. Financially speaking, buying that ticket was a bad move. It’s only pure luck that prevented him from paying the price.

I bring this up in connection with 9/11 because the exact same argument applies to the firefighters, police officers, and EMTs who responded to the World Trade Center and died in the collapse. We call them heroes, and indeed they are. But they didn’t know they were going to die when they made the decision to respond to the scene and enter the towers. All they knew was that there was a risk —  a non-zero probability of death — and they went ahead and did it anyway. They are heroes not because they died, but because they risked death.

I think that’s an important distinction because there are plenty of other people — other firefighters and police and EMTs and anyone else who helped — who took the same risk that day, and happened by chance to survive. That they didn’t die does not in any way diminish their heroism. So remember the dead heroes, but also remember the heroes who still walk among us.

In an effort to keep you up-to-date, Windypundit has sent its spy satellite (WindySat) to check out the Abbottabad compound in Pakistan to see if we could spot the downed Black Hawk helicopter. Sure enough! There it is. That black “X” shaped object to the left of the building.

abbottabad_pakistan_05_02_11.jpg
OK, I admit it. WindySat is down for repairs so I had to get this from GeoEye.
Still, pretty cool…

Yes, the Wicked Witch is dead.

The world is certainly a better place without Osama Bin Laden in it.

I would have preferred that Bin Laden had been captured and put on trial, but I suppose he had no intention of allowing that to happen. A capture and trial would have highlighted the difference between vendetta and justice. It also would have softened the inevitable images of Americans celebrating.

I feel satisfaction, not joy, at Bin Laden’s death. Crowds of Americans exalting in celebration over the death of an enemy is predictable, and even understandable, on some level. Despite this, all I can think of when seeing such displays is the footage of extremists around the world celebrating like fools the death of thousands on 9/11. I despised them for celebrating death.

It would have been nice to think that Americans were better than that, but I suppose a mob is a mob, no matter how enlightened the individuals.


Update: Damn. Now I can’t get that blasted song out of my head…

For almost a decade we have had heavy-handed rights abuses all in the name of keeping people safe from threats which kill far fewer people than traffic accidents do each year. We allow the files on your laptop to be perused with no cause. We take for granted that people can be detained indefinitely without being tried or even accused of a crime. The United States now condones tortuous acts, which we ourselves once prosecuted others for, as normal. We think it’s OK to listen in on private conversations of anyone without any judicial review at all. The American public accepts all this, and more, in the name of safety.

But there is something that your average American, bred with a history of puritan ethics, just wont stand for. That is allowing someone else to either see or touch your private parts.
I understand this on an intellectual level, from a sociological perspective, yet am still gravely disappointed by it. Personally, if someone wants to look at me naked before getting on an airplane, I really don’t mind. They won’t enjoy it, but it won’t bother me. If someone would like to fondle my family jewels while waiting at an airport, they can give it a go. In fact, I know people who would pay someone to do that while still in the airport parking lot.
I suppose it does make a difference that I’m not sought out by GQ as a male model, and that when you pay for an “aggressive pat down” you get to chose who does it. But again, these are things that just wouldn’t bother me that much, especially when compared to getting arrested and detained without warrant or trial.
Of course, I’ve never been a particularly good Protestant. I don’t have the ingrained moral outrage at pornography, prostitution, revealing swim wear at the beach, or anything else that reminds us we are humans who, on occasion, have sex.
So let me join the masses of people who are complaining about the new invasive full-body scans and new aggressive pat down policies now being used by the TSA. I’m not complaining about these new systems, though. I’m complaining about all of the Americans who couldn’t be bothered to complain about their freedoms being wrenched away in the name of security, yet can’t overcome their moral outrage at being seen naked in a fuzzy, monochrome image by a bored security worker before getting on an airplane.
The new security scans do, at least, provide one good service to the country. We will finally be able to see (or feel) if the American citizen can grow a set of balls.

So it’s 9/11 again…

Actually, it isn’t. When we talk about “9/11″ we mean September 11, 2001. Today, however, is September 11, 2010. This 9/11 isn’t really The 9/11. The only relationship between today and the 9/11 that happened 3277 days ago is due to our calendar, which is related to the Earth’s position in its orbit around the Sun, which we only really care about because the Earth’s inclination causes seasons that affect our lives. In other words, it’s all in our heads.

I gather Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin have some sort of rally going on today. Beck claims the date is a coincidence, just like his rally at the Lincoln memorial on the annivarsary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech was a coincidence. I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on that one, since 8/28 isn’t as well-known a date as 9/11, but now that he’s used the same excuse twice, I have to assume he was lying both times.

As you’d expect, the usual opposition are accusing Beck and Palin of “sucking the blood from the World Trade Center dead, or otherwise trying to cash-in on the date. I’m pretty sure that’s more or less what they have in mind, but I don’t care. 9/11 was nine years ago. Today is a whole new day.

I felt the same about the claim that Beck was trying to “take over” the Martin Luther King dream speech. The “dream” speech was 47 years ago. Beck and his rally can’t lay a hand on it. Besides, Glenn Beck is an insignificant insect compared to Doctor King. He has no chance of taking anything over.

I’m not exacly sure what point I’m trying to make here. I guess the main one is that, for me, 9/11 is now just history. The anniversary doesn’t feel significant anymore. I no longer experience that mental shock when I see the twin towers in an old movie. I can think about the events of that day without reliving the searing emotions. I’m really only writing about it because everybody else is.

I’m over it.

I realize that not everybody is so lucky. I wasn’t there. I didn’t lose anybody. Some people took it a lot harder than I did. Some people lost loved ones, or worked in the destroyed buildings, and have had their lives changed forever. Other people were just, for one reason or another, closer to it than I was, and it’s still a living reality for them. Some people, for no particular reason, just aren’t past it yet.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. I hope they find the peace they need.

But I resent the accusation — usually implied but sometimes explicit, and often offered by pundits and demagogues — that there’s something wrong with people who feel like I do. I haven’t forgotten 9/11, but there’s a difference between remembering 9/11 and wallowing in the glorious pain.

When the towers were burning, it got so bad for the people trapped above the fire floors that some of them were forced to jump to their deaths. The media had pictures of this, and they showed a bunch of them for a while. But within a day or two, perhaps deciding it was a little too exploitive, they stopped showing the jumpers.

This outraged some people in the blogosphere. Apparently, they weren’t satisfied with all the news stations showing us over and over again how the planes hit the towers and exploded into angry fireballs of burning jet fuel. And they weren’t satisfied with all the footage of the towers collapsing into giant dust clouds.

No, they wanted to see as much death as possible. And they accused the news media of trying to whitewash 9/11, of trying to hide from the American people the full horror of What They Did To Us.

I don’t know why us humans experience fear and anger — I suspect we evolved them because they help us to focus our attention and rally our personal resources — but here’s one thing I do know: People who try to make you feel fear or anger are trying to manipulate you.

Almost every provision of the Patriot Act had been proposed months or years before by some government agency and shot down by Congress as unwise. But after 9/11, politicians were afraid to say no to anything that might be justified as making us safer. It was a huge power grab by law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Shortly thereafter, the passenger screening function at airports was taken over from private companies by the Transportation Security Agency. They immediately hired all the same people to do the job, but now they are government employees, more intrusive, and less accountable. Now instead of looking for threats to air travel, they’re conducting warrantless searches for drugs and stolen checks, and they’re retaliating with heavier searches against people who complain.

Even today, we’ve got Beck and Palin trying to rally people around 9/11, and there are demagogues trying to stir up fear and outrage over land use issues in lower Manhattan.

I’m sure there are plenty of people of good will who have stronger feelings about 9/11 than I do, and I’m sure some of them are genuinely mystified that I’m not as angry as they are. All I can say to them is that I have moved on. But if they will refrain from accusing me of forgetting 9/11, I’ll refrain from accusing them of being manipulative fearmongers.

As for the actual demagogues who want us all to be angrier so we’ll support their agenda, here’s my anger: Go fuck yourselves.

Exactly why terrorists attacked the United States nine years ago is still debated. One fact that is clear, however, is that the United States is a special and unique place in the world.

When terrorists killed nearly 3000 random people on American soil, they ended up killing not just Americans, but citizens of 76 other countries as well.

AP writer Meghan Barr has an article about dead letter handling for zipcode 10048:

It is the kind of holiday mail that might have been tossed aside, discarded like any other piece of junk mail: a special gift offer for a facial at a local spa.

Only the address on the letter no longer exists.

And the woman the letter is addressed to died more than five years ago in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

Hundreds of pieces of mail destined for the former World Trade Center still arrive every day at a post office facing ground zero — the relics of the unfinished lives of the victims of Sept. 11, 2001.

Telephone bills, insurance statements, wine club announcements, college alumni newsletters, even government checks populate the bundles of mail. Each one bears the postal code once reserved exclusively for the twin towers: 10048.

The fact that the Postal Service is even forwarding mail from a nonexistent address five years later is rare. “Normally we’d only forward mail for a year,” [U.S. Postal Service spokeswoman Pat] McGovern said. “But we’re making an exception here.”

Read the whole thing.

2,996

By one estimate, that’s how many people died in the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

It’s also the number of people being memorialzed today in the blogosphere. Each person is being memorialized by at least one blogger.

The official list is here:

http://www.dcroe.com/2996/?page_id=2

That page is down right now because their hosting service has cut them off, presumably because of all the traffic. What kind of moronic hosting service cuts you off because of a brief spike in traffic? Click the link to find out.

Not to worry. I resurrected an old version of the list from the Google cache and posted it here:

http://s3.amazonaws.com/static.windypundit.com/cache/2996-List.html

That’s an Amazon Web Services page, so it should take a billion hits or so without any trouble. However, it’s going to cost me real money, so please hit the “Make a Donation” tip jar on the left if you feel so inclined.

Reason magazine has an open comment thread for 9/11 thoughts. Here’s mine:

I remember watching the towers burn in real time as it was happening, and I remember wrestling with the fact that it was too late. No matter how rich and powerful and capable we are, we could never bring back all the people who were murdered by the crashing planes, by the roaring fireballs, and by the smoke filling the towers.

That must be what it’s like to make a mistake with some fast-moving machinery and see half your hand fall to the floor: There’s the pain, and there’s the realization that it’s irreversible and you can’t undo it no matter how hard you try.

I did manage to find a little good news, though. Ramzi Yusef’s boastful quest to bring the towers down had failed again. The towers may have been burning, and thousands may have been dead, but the towers still stood. That glimmer of hope lasted about 45 minutes, until I saw a huge dust cloud envelop one of the towers from top to bottom, and I figured out what had to have caused it.

Some people are amazing.

Sally Goodrich, whose son died in the Sept. 11 attacks, kept a grip on her grief as she surveyed the foundations of the Afghan school being built with money she raised in the United States.

Goodrich, a native of Bennington, Vt., and an administrator for schools in nearby North Adams, Mass., has helped raise about $180,000 for the new girl’s school in Surkh Abat, about 30 miles south of Kabul, in Logar province.

I can’t imagine a better way to help the Afghan people while simultaneously striking a blow against Islamic extremism than to educate a bunch of young girls.

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.