TCS Daily


Wake Up!

By James Pinkerton - January 10, 2002 12:00 AM

Editor's note: This article is the first of three parts.

Happy New Year-or is it? Maybe the right way to think about 2002 is, so far so good. Yes, we've won a battle against terror, but the war continues. And if, as President Bush says, the real struggle is against "evildoers," then it's going to be a long war indeed. And if the 20th century proved that technology is a force-multiplier for evil, as well as for good, then the 21st century is likely to multiply those multiples.

So what should we do? Stay in bed? Pull the blanket over our heads? That's what we've been doing, mostly dozing as techno-threats-and techno-fixes-rang in our ears. And so we were shocked awake on September 11, as familiar technology was "dual-used" against us. Yes, our military responded to the reveille, but surely we need the national equivalent of a hot cup of coffee-and a new year's resolution to be more alert to threats as they loom overhead.

Why? Because the New Year started off with an indicator that we're still half-asleep. On January 5 a single-engine Cessna 172 flew right over MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, at an altitude of 100 feet. MacDill has been in the news of late because it's the headquarters of the Pentagon's Central Command (Centcom), which is tasked with overseeing U.S. military operations in 25 countries in Asia and Africa, including, of course, Afghanistan. Which is a windy way of saying that MacDill is an important facility, and an obvious target for terrorists.

General Tommy Franks, the commander in chief of Centcom, didn't see any need for dramatic increases in base security. "I think one would want to be careful before we decide that every potential place in our country that could be threatened should have its own combat air patrol and that sort of thing," he told the Associate Press on January 7, two days after the incident. Franks, of course, is obviously an imperturbable type. Having spent 34 years in the Army, having been wounded three times in Vietnam, having overseen the U.S. victory in Afghanistan, he understandably doesn't get rattled by someone in a little plane buzzing overhead. But maybe he should.

Because while the plane was carrying nothing more dangerous than a deranged 15-year-old boy-no suitcase nukes or anthrax aerosols on board-how did authorities know that in advance? They didn't. They couldn't. But the boy-pilot kept on flying, past MacDill, smashing himself into the 28th floor of an empty Tampa office building-a solitary, albeit spectacular, suicide.

But even without any weapon greater than the kinetic energy of the aircraft, plus its fuel, the kamikaze Cessna could have inflicted far more damage-and the U.S. military had no power to prevent it. According to the Associated Press, the pilot took off illegally at 4:50 pm, flew over MacDill, and then crashed into the Bank of America building at 5:04 pm. But North American Aerospace Defense Command, NORAD, charged with defending the airspace of this continent, didn't find out about the flight until 5:13 pm-nine minutes after the crash. At 5:16, NORAD's southeast air defense sector branch alerted fighters at Homestead Air Reserve Base, about 270 miles southeast of Tampa. Jets took off at 5:21 and established a "combat air patrol" over Tampa by 5:45. In other words, defensive air-pickets were on the scene 55 minutes after the suicide takeoff, and 41 minutes after suicide crash.

Needed: Pattern Recognition

And who was this boy pilot? In whose pants pocket was found a note expressing support for the 9/11 mass-murderers, and for Osama Bin Laden? His name was Charles Bishop, although the Tampa Tribune reported that his family's original name was Bishara, which is Arabic. "Racial profiling" in advance of an incident may be wrong, but pattern recognition after an incident is a necessary part of any counter-terror strategy. So is it not of considerable interest that, nearly four months after 9/11, yet another young Arab male is hijacking airplanes? And crashing them into buildings? To be sure, all reports indicate that Bishop was merely a troubled loner, but that shouldn't be the end of the investigation.

Most likely, a further re-evaluation of airspace security is under way. But who can be sure, in light of the record, which shows that Americans have been taken by surprise time and again? That record of cluelessness is indeed remarkable, considering the number of surprise attacks that the U.S. has suffered.

Consider suicide bombers. The first Japanese kamikazes crashed into U.S. targets at Leyte Gulf in the Philippines on November 5, 1944. Yet half a century later, the kamikaze experience had not yet been internalized into U.S. military gameplanning. Novelist Tom Clancy imagined a vengeful Japanese ordering a 747 to crash into the U.S. Capitol in his novel Debt of Honor, published in August 1994-and a month later, in the real world, on September 12, Frank Eugene Corder crashed a stolen Cessna into the White House.

And the notion of murder-suicide by airplane continued to be in the air, as it were. The Chicago Tribune reported in 1999 that Eric Harris, one of the Columbine High School mass murderers, had an even more diabolical plan for after the school shootings; he and Dylan Klebold would commandeer an airplane and crash it into Manhattan. And the Minneapolis Star-Tribune revealed recently that a Twin Cities flight instructor repeatedly phoned the FBI in August, warning about the suspicious behavior of Zacarias Moussaoui. "Do you realize how serious this is?" the instructor asked an FBI agent. "This man wants training on a 747. A 747 fully loaded with fuel could be used as a weapon!" Moussaoui was detained before September 11 on immigration violations, but authorities didn't connect him to the terrorist attacks until it was too late.

What does all this mean? It means that there was plenty of information, hiding in plain sight, about the danger from planes. Some of it was fictional, some of it was factual, but to a few twisted types, all of it was inspirational.

And given this mass of data, it's a little disheartening to read about Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, telling the Defense Press Service, after 9/11, "You hate to admit it, but we hadn't thought about this." Yet even after the fact, the reality of air-vulnerability doesn't seem to have totally sunk in, as the MacDill incident indicates.

Windy City Wisdom

More evidence can be found in Chicago. Although the Windy City was not hit by terror on 9/11, Mayor Richard M. Daley ordered a comprehensive review of emergency procedures for downtown high-rises. And he asked the Federal Aviation Administration to impose a "no-fly zone" for the Loop and Near North Side areas. The FAA turned him down. This week Daley launched a public campaign, telling The Chicago Sun Times on January 8 that the Florida crash was a "wake-up call for this nation." As the mayor observed, "Everybody's worried about screening baggage and somebody can get in a plane and fly it into your building. Is that ridiculous? We're really in sad shape." Warming further to his kick-the-bureaucrats-in-the-butt theme, he added, "You wonder what's happening with the federal government. They require people to have seatbelts in cars. Small planes-no one knows anything about them. Anybody can get a license. Anybody can fly anyplace."

Daley has a point. Without Sovietizing American airspace, we need to give more thought to securing that same air space. Many have come forward with technological fixes, from better screening of passengers and crews to emergency ground-control overrides to anti-aircraft defenses atop tall buildings. But the current strategy, which seems to involve a high quotient of dithering, is unacceptable. Fiction, such as Clancy's, has done the world a service by highlighting possible threats. It's unfortunate that for all of his wide readership, nobody in a position of authority, as the Air Force's Myers admitted, took Clancy's suicide-crash scenario seriously.

The challenge now is to do better. Otherwise, we risk being attacked again, and only afterward will we realize that we had been warned, but we hadn't noticed.

So next week, we'll look at how other fiction has looked ahead to even greater dangers-and to possible solutions. And the week after that, we'll address the big question, which is this: just how long does the earth want us to be here, anyway?
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