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Analysis from a JHU CS Prof

  • From: Lloyd Taylor
  • Date: Tue Sep 11 18:38:55 2001

A cogent analysis of this morning's events...

>From: "Jonathan S. Shapiro" <[email protected]>
>Subject: Thoughts on this morning's events
>Date: Tue, 11 Sep 2001 13:07:24 -0400
>I hope and trust that all of those concerned for their loved ones will find
>them healthy and whole. If you are stuck at work, consider waiting a few
>hours to go home. Right now the roads are far more risk than staying put.
>As someone who passed through the WTC 45 minutes before the bomb went off
>years ago, and watched live as the second WTC tower was penetrated at 9:03,
>I wanted to inject some analysis into the current situation.
>This act goes well beyond terrorism as we have previously understood it.
>It's been repeatedly demonstrated to us that a single plane can be hijacked
>by a small, well-prepared group backed up by the right logistics support.
>Hijacking *five* planes, on a tight timetable, from multiple locations, to
>hit multiple targets within 90 minutes of each other is simply a completely
>different scale of organization. This act required logistic support and
>coordination involving hundreds of people, with major-league funding.
>Also, it's worth remembering that airplanes aren't all that easy to fly, and
>it's unlikely that a commercial pilot could be persuaded to fly into a
>building -- even at gunpoint. This means that the perpetrators needed to
>find five adequate pilots, which in turn means that they needed to know *in
>advance* which kinds of planes they would be hijacking. While a lot of the
>pilot training could be done using Flight Simulator, you still need to know
>what to train for.
>Further, this is a very difficult attack to defend against. Suppose you
>*did* have a SAM (surface to air missile) handy in New York, and you saw the
>plane coming in time to use it. Do you shoot down a plane over a major
>metropolitan area, or do you let it crash? Which will cause greater
>destruction?  While you figure it out the opportunity passes.
>The attackers picked planes that were scheduled for cross-country flights,
>and would therefore be loaded with JP (airplane fuel). JP burns very hot,
>and is relatively easy to set on fire. Because these planes were loaded with
>fuel, they could be relied on to spread the fuel through the buildings on
>impact, maximizing damage and hampering rescue efforts.
>The planes were hijacked from major U.S. airports. Security at these
>airports may not be the tightest in the world, but neither is it sloppy. In
>this case, it was systematically beaten in several locations at once. This
>required time, money, thought, and preparation.
>What we have here is an attacker who has said not just "I can attack
>anything I want", but "I can attack lots of things, all at once, and not
>only can't you stop me but you can't even detect a very large organization
>that is doing the preparations -- even when we tip you off three weeks in
>On the whole, it seems fair to say that this entire action was carefully
>thought out, planned in careful detail, and (at least from the attacker's
>perspective) well executed. It required access to significant information
>Obviously, the targets were picked for maximum symbolic value, but the
>Pentagon is a military target. That means that this *isn't* an act of
>terrorism; it is an act of war. If  indeed it proves that the attacker was
>bin-Laden, and if Taliban has been harboring him, it would not surprise me
>to see the United States take the view that Taliban has committed an
>undeclared act of war, and react accordingly.
>Finally, an observation on people's reactions. People here at Hopkins showed
>a range of initial reactions from dismay to tears to shock. But this quickly
>changed. The second reaction was universally anger. The sense of things --
>and we are talking here about basically pacifist academics, mind you -- is
>that if we can figure out who launched this thing we should take them out
>decisively, and it's just too damned bad if some country decides to get on
>the wrong side.
>If the goal of this attack was fear it has failed. Possibly, it has altered
>the American perception of terrorism in a basic way and convinced us that
>decisive action is the only response to terrorism. This lesson comes at too
>high a cost, and with personal tragic impact on too many people, and at a
>price that we should never have been forced to pay, to be sure. Still, if
>this incident teaches America to respond decisively to terrorism then
>perhaps those losses will mean something, and *some* small good may yet be
>recovered from this.
>Meanwhile, let us hope that the death toll is smaller than all our fears,
>and do what we can to help the victims and their loved ones come to terms as
>they can.
>Jonathan S. Shapiro