"What If It Had Rained on September 11?" and Three Other Questions about 9/11
Jesse Lemisch is a Professor Emeritus of History at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York.
Amidst the blizzard of accounts of 9/11, we nonetheless lack information on some of the most central questions. These unanswered questions are central because they get to the heart of the operation itself and how it was carried off. The government has answers to some or all of these questions, but it isn’t sharing the answers with us. Some of this holding back relates to embarrassment about further exposure of stupid policies and inept actions and non-actions. But there are in addition what seem obvious and partly justifiable reasons: the less that’s known about how to carry out such an operation, the less likely it is that others will be able to emulate it. But in order for us to understand and prevent the recurrence of so cataclysmic and central an event—as well as its awful sequelae—we have a right and a need to know as well as we can, just what happened on 9/11. Democracy presupposes an informed populace.
1. What if it had rained on September 11? Skies had to be clear from Maine to Washington, both so that planes to be used by the hijackers would be flying and so that their targets would be visible. It would have significantly weakened the impact if some, but not all, of the planes had not gotten off on that morning, due to weather or for some other reason. So there had to have been a mechanism for the making and communicating amongst the hijackers of a go/no go decision, and a decision-making procedure had to be worked out in advance. Beyond the matter of weather issues, another contingency was built into the plan: the 6:00am flight by Mohamed Atta and Abdul Aziz al Omari from Portland, Maine to their connection at Boston Logan. Anybody who flies knows that difficulties are multiplied by a connection. What would have become of the larger operation had these two failed to make their connection? What was the plan? And what was Plan B?
2. How did they remove the pilots by force? How do you remove (kill?) four planes’ two pilots, take their seats and not lose control of the planes in the pandemonium? This is not something you just make up on the spot. What was the plan? It’s clear that the four seizures followed an overall predetermined sequence and schedule, and this crucial component has to have been thought out and practiced in advance, step by step.
3. How were the passengers allowed to make phone calls? This seems a real error. By providing communication between passengers and, on the ground, relatives and administrators, these calls gave passengers information about their likely fate if they did not resist. And such communication endangered the mission by providing people on the ground, including the military, with valuable information, opening the door to shooting down planes before they had accomplished their mission. Clearly the resistance on Flight 93 was driven by passengers who picked up from the ground information about the crashes that had already occurred at the WTC. Why did the hijackers permit or at least not impede these conversations? What was the plan? (In this case, it looks as if there was none.)
4. How did they hit the buildings just right? The hijackers were poor pilots, with various reports of their planes swaying from side to side. One would not expect them to have been better, with their limited training and lack of experience. They had the skill to turn off the planes’ transponders but otherwise so little experience that they couldn’t figure out how to make voice announcements to the passenger cabin, sending announcements out instead by radio, unwittingly providing those on the ground and in other planes with important clues as to what was going on. Perhaps it’s too much to expect that novice pilots accelerating to 500 miles per hour towards the end would have the skill to direct their planes to the right floor of the World Trade Center. But the outcome speaks for itself: they hit the buildings in a way that brought them down. Was this chance, or part of a grand plan? At an extreme, had bin Laden-connected engineers calculated the point of maximum vulnerability and instructed the pilots to attempt to hit in the area of a specific floor? Were the planners familiar with the shoddiness of WTC construction and the inadequacy of the fireproofing? Did they understand just what held the building, up and thus in what ways it was vulnerable? Had the designers of the WTC sacrificed safety to maximization of rentable space? (Perhaps the planners had studied the failure of an Army Air Corps B-25 to knock down the Empire State Building when, lost in the fog, it accidentally hit the 78th to 80th floors in July 1945.)
The question of advance planning of the best way to bring down the building is the most intriguing. Such an approach would provide insight to the variety of people involved in the plan. The existing literature conveys that these barely competent pilots just had the good fortune to place their planes in such a way as to bring down the buildings. An alternate view, suggested here, would indicate that the hijackers had consulted with and been advised by engineering experts who were familiar with the construction of the WTC and probably had the plans and some knowledge of the buildings’ vulnerabilities.
Overall, much more thought and planning went into this operation than most people believe. With at least nineteen people to be informed, there has to have been a master list detailing step- by- stop acts. Can it be that all 19 (or more) copies went down with the planes – or did some copies outlive the flames in computers and hard copy?
As I’ve said, we would rather not provide blueprints for others who might want to duplicate this atrocious act. But knowing what actually happened is important. Right now, we don’t know. September 11 was a heinous but brilliant military operation. It underestimates the planning behind it to accept a narrative which more or less suggests that the hijackers made it up as they went along. We need to know what happened.
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