November/December 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 8
How our technologies are still our allies
In the early 1880s, a Maine-born inventor named Hiram Maxim, who had tried and failed to become a leading figure in the young electrical industry, met a fellow American in Vienna who told him, “Hang your chemistry and electricity! If you want to make a pile of money, invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each other’s throats with greater facility.” Maxim took the man’s advice. He invented the first truly automatic machine gun. By the turn of the century, it had killed thousands of colonial rebels in Africa, India, and Egypt, and it accounted for more than half of the Japanese casualties in the Russo-Japanese War. By the end of World War I, the Germans had 100,000 machine guns. Death was now mass-produced.
Maxim’s gun was one of an endless succession of breakthroughs in warfare that have gone on for millennia, escalating destruction by leaps. Some of those breakthroughs, the Maxim gun among them, have seemed to change the very nature of warfare. Earlier in the nineteenth century had come the development of the rifle and the birth of the ironclad, remaking war both on land and sea. Later came the military airplane and the aircraft carrier and, most epochally, the atom bomb.
On September n, 2001, the technology of war took a leap in a wholly new direction. Now it was not a matter of bigger, more advanced machinery, of an increase in destructive capability. It was chillingly the opposite. The biggest, most advanced weapon used on September 11 may have been a box cutter. This was a breakthrough into war fought not with weapons at all but with the peaceful technology of modern life. Swords were put aside, and our plowshares were turned against us.
It was done with fearful sophistication. Whoever dreamed up the conspiracy had been thinking exactly the way the man who advised Hiram Maxim thought: He had been discovering how to make killing radically easier. The terrorists recognized that our technologies have become so huge and so mighty that they are engines of death in disguise, needing only to be turned to that use, and that the mass murderer no longer need acquire mass-murder weapons. Building on this insight, the terrorists became experts in the civil technologies involved, not only learning to pilot jetliners but also, evidently, studying how to make the combination of jetliners and skyscrapers as deadly as possible. They chose transcontinental flights carrying thousands of gallons of fuel. They flew into the World Trade Center precisely high enough to avoid surrounding buildings, but low enough so that when the searing heat of burning fuel destroyed the structures’ integrity, enough floors above would topple down to crush, floor by floor, all those below. And they chose buildings whose collapse would make them into bombs themselves, throwing out shock waves that would wreck other buildings in turn, ruining acres of the world’s most heavily populated and economically central real estate while eradicating thousands of lives.
How much of this was planned, and how much gruesome luck, is not yet known and may never be. But the shock waves to our colossally interdependent world flowed beyond those acres and lives—to the financial markets, closed for nearly a week; to the airlines, nearly bankrupted as all air travel nationwide stopped for days; to the country’s very tranquillity, shattered not only by the specter of further, unpredictable attacks but by the likelihood of a war in a place, Afghanistan, that had already been one superpower’s Vietnam.
Were we cursed by our own prowess? Had our very strength and versatility—in throwing up cities of skyscrapers, in building ships to transport us across the skies, in having so much wealth and power to concentrate in such a confined space—become a fatal curse? What positive lessons, what glimmers of hope, can be drawn from this turning of our mastery back upon ourselves? I think there are two very important ones.
First, there are crucial ways in which systems did not fail under the intense pressure of the attacks but rather showed remarkable resilience. Almost unremarked amid the chaos of the events of September 11 was the fact that more than 4,000 commercial airliners in the air scrambled to find places to land in an instant game of nationwide musical chairs. Hundreds, if not thousands, of them had to head for airports they had never been to before. This might be the sternest test possible of the nation’s strained air-traffic-control system. It was passed so easily that it was hardly noticed amid the day’s tragedies.
Likewise, the unprecedentedly massive mobilization of emergency services in New York was carried out with a dazzling efficiency. By the end of the day, the New York City Fire Department had lost almost half as many men and women as in its entire previous history, transportation was shut down, and the whole city had to be closed off two miles north of the World Trade Center; yet, while absorbing this body blow, the city reacted with lightning speed. Right after the first plane struck, a TV-studio lot at Chelsea Piers began to be turned into a huge emergency trauma unit with rows of gurneys and IV racks; a new city Emergency Command Center was established within hours after the original one was destroyed in the attack; TV and radio stations that broadcast from the top of the World Trade Center raced to find backup transmitters; telephone and cellphone networks, suddenly handling many times their normal volume of calls, accommodated them with surprisingly little strain.
The list goes on. The heart of the response was, of course, people; it was people gathering and cooperating to throw all their energy into turning technology back to its proper uses: doctors and nurses and medical technicians knitting New York’s hospitals into a megahospital; engineers and planners setting the subway running again, preparing to rebuild the ruined pieces; electricians and plumbers and water engineers restoring crippled parts of the city’s infrastructure; construction engineers and workers shoring up standing buildings and safely disposing of fallen ones… and much more.
Which leads to the second and larger heartening lesson to be gained from the events of September 11. It is a stark truth, not a sentimental one, that the reason the response was so swiftly effective—the human response so commanding at turning our technologies back to our benefit—was our freedom. We wield our technologies with such authority and resilience, indeed we have our technologies in the first place, only because we have freedom: freedom to communicate, and connect, and build, and work together as we see fit. Our freedom is the raw material of our technical mastery. It gives us the command that shows itself in the world we have built. And this is why any enemy who hates us for the world we have built must ultimately work at an enormous disadvantage.
Here is Osama bin Laden’s sense of history and destiny. He said in an interview in 1998: “Allah has granted the Muslim people and the Afghani mujahedeen, and those with them, the opportunity to fight the Russians and the Soviet Union….They were defeated by Allah and were wiped out. There is a lesson here. The Soviet Union entered Afghanistan late in December of '79. The flag of the Soviet Union was folded once and for all…just ten years later. It was thrown in the wastebasket….We are certain that we shall—with the grace of Allah— prevail over the Americans and over the Jews …”
If he thinks the United States can go the way of the Soviet Union, he misses the essential difference between the two. Just as our freedom makes us strong, the Soviet Union’s lack of freedom made it weak. The Soviets tried to build an industrially powerful state without freedom and could not, though they appeared to outsiders for a long time to be succeeding. As the historian Loren Graham has observed, their approach included “the education of the largest army of engineers the world has ever seen- people who would come to rule the entire Soviet bureaucracy—in such a way that they knew almost nothing of modern economics and politics"; it included the “imperious demand for industrial expansion at a rate that was technically unfeasible and shockingly wasteful of human lives"; it included “into the 1980s… the Soviet insistence on maintaining inefficient state farms and giant state factories [as] an expression of willful dogmatism that flew in the face of a mountain of empirical data worldwide about economic structures that were more efficient and more just.”
That state had a closed mind; New York (and Washington, and America), in the days after the attacks, was an injured body with a healthy mind, reaching out, discovering its resources, bringing people together to heal and rebuild. This depended on a functioning nervous system—our networks of communication—and on plain muscle—our medical and industrial and transportation and logistical prowess—as well as on our heart, on the men and women, firefighters, police officers, relief workers, construction workers, engineers, and so many others who are our body’s lifeblood.
The Soviets were ultimately a crippled body. Their technological might, and ultimately their military strength, despite their nuclear arsenal, was a ghost. The give-and-take and flexibility and openness to new ideas that build both machines and societies were not there. Likewise, bin Laden and all his followers have their headquarters in a devastated land with barely a paved road or a telephone line, crushed by tyranny, and they operate by secrecy and evasiveness and smuggled communications and subterfuge. The experiences of September 11 demonstrated that such a system can, if cannily deployed, deliver a stunning blow to the world. But the experiences of the last century, like the experience of New York City and America on September 11, 2001, show that where there is freedom and openness, there will be strength.