Human Terror

Human Terror

Human Terror

How you look at things.
Sept. 12 2001 2:30 AM

Human Terror

How many weapons do you need to kill thousands of American civilians in about an hour?

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Answer: None.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

As of 4 p.m. ET, no evidence has emerged that the people who massacred the occupants of the World Trade Center or the Pentagon this morning supplied any of the technology that made such devastation possible. They supplied no missiles. They supplied no bombs. They used no electronic communications that were intercepted.

How did they kill so many people so fast?

At 8 a.m., they had no explosives or delivery vehicles. By 9 a.m., they had both. Where did they get them? From us. We supplied the delivery vehicles: four commercial passenger planes. We supplied the explosives: tanks loaded with jet fuel for the 3,000-mile journey from the East Coast to California. We supplied the secondary force that multiplied the deaths and destruction: the weight of the upper floors of the World Trade Center towers, which collapsed on the floors below.

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All the perpetrators needed were a few human beings who were willing to die.

It may take months to determine exactly what happened, but this much is clear. Three planes were flown directly into targeted buildings. Unless the pilots or flight attendants steered the planes into those buildings deliberately or under threat, either of which is unlikely, that means that the perpetrators knew reliably—reliably enough to succeed in all three cases—how to get into the cockpits and how to fly commercial planes. Getting into the cockpits probably required implements that could pass through airport detection and later become weapons. But engineering the collisions—guiding the missiles—required something no X-ray machine or airport security officer could spot: the knowledge of how to fly planes, stored in the perpetrator's head.

The minimalism of today's attacks confounds our usual debates about how to protect ourselves. Take the debate over gun control. The National Rifle Association says that to protect ourselves against criminals with guns, we need guns of our own. Gun control advocates reply that your own gun is likely to be used against you by yourself, someone in your family, or a criminal who captures it. This morning's catastrophe should give both sides pause. Our own devices were used to kill us. And those devices weren't the kind we think of as weapons. We wouldn't have impeded these attacks by disarming terrorists any more than we would have by disarming ourselves.

Or take the debate over National Missile Defense. Supporters of NMD have pointed out that we have no system to protect American cities from missile attack. Opponents of NMD have pointed out that such a system can't stop terrorists from bring "suitcase" bombs into the country. Both sides have underestimated our vulnerability. Terrorists don't need a bomb or even a suitcase. They just need a driver's license.

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Then there's the debate between electronic surveillance and "human intelligence." Advocates of the latter argue that we rely too much on technology to monitor terrorists. They say we have to infiltrate terrorist cells with human agents. They're right. But even that isn't enough. The perpetrators of today's hijackings didn't board airplanes in London or Athens. They boarded them in Boston; Newark, N.J.; and Washington, D.C.

How do you stop a commercial plane from flying into a building? If it doesn't respond to hails, do you assume the worst and try to shoot it down? Even if you had the technology to do so, how many minutes or seconds would you have between the time air traffic controllers realized something was wrong and the time you had to fire or risk downing the plane over the city? How many planes full of passengers are you willing to shoot down to make sure you prevent another disaster like those that happened today? In a world in which people with planes kill people, how many private planes are you willing to ground? How many pilots' licenses are you willing to confiscate?

Remember the movie in which a teen-age girl, alone in a house at night and hounded by menacing phone calls, locks all the doors and windows? When the police finally trace the calls, they inform the girl of the horrifying news: The phone calls are coming from inside the house.

Welcome to the new theater of war. The killers are inside the house. Our utensils are their weapons. And there is no phone call.