No one comes close (to Schiphol)

Like most people, I've never been to NORAD, but I can picture the place thanks to movies like War Games and Independence Day.

In addition to that mental image, I also had another image of the North American Aerospace Defense Command — one that both those movies also referenced. NORAD was the omnicompetent, nearly invincible guarantor of American supremacy in the skies. For the last half of the 20th century, from Truman through Clinton, NORAD embodied the slogan the U.S. Air Force used to use in its commercials: "No one comes close."

The Air Force stopped using that slogan because, well, someone came close — close enough to hit us hard, from the air.

That sense of invincibility that NORAD seemed to embody, it turns out, was another example of "pre-9/11 thinking." The defenders of the air that we were certain could, at a moment's notice, intercept and repel the most sophisticated Soviet attack turned out to be unable even to intercept a hijacked commercial jetliner with an hour and a half of warning.

Forget the Soviets, NORAD, it seems, isn't even as competent and fearsome as the Dutch. Witness this morning's headline: "F-16s escort jet back to Schiphol."

Those would be Dutch F-16s, flown by Dutch pilots from the Royal Netherlands Air Force:

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands (CNN) — A Northwest Airlines flight bound for India was escorted back to Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport by F-16 fighter jets on Wednesday.

The plane was turned around after "a couple of passengers displayed behavior of concern," according to Northwest Airlines. …

The airport spokeswoman said the pilot had requested to return to Amsterdam and after the plane landed, there were some arrests.

So what gives? Is the Koninklijke Luchtmacht really that much more capable than the USAF?

The Northwest flight took off from Amsterdam at 10:25 a.m., the pilot reported his concerns, the F-16s scrambled and escorted the jet back to Schiphol by 11:39 a.m. An effective and efficient response. Elapsed time: 1 hour, 14 minutes.

Contrast this with the events of Sept. 11, 2001(here's CNN's chronology — although this one is more comprehensive). The first hijacked plane struck the north tower of the World Trade Center at 8:45 a.m. A second hijacked plane struck the south tower 18 minutes later. Forty minutes later, a third hijacked plane crashed into the Pentagon. And 27 minutes after that a fourth hijacked plane, United Flight 93, crashed in western Pennsylvania. No effective response from NORAD. Elapsed time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.

So why wasn't NORAD capable of doing … something?

The answer, the Official Answer, is: We don't know.

NORAD officials testified before the 9/11 Commission, but their testimony was misleading and inaccurate. "We to this day don't know why NORAD told us what they told us," commissioner Tom Kean said. "It was so far from the truth." Kean and commission co-chair Lee Hamilton express their frustration with this official deception in their book, Without Precedent, as the Associate Press reports:

The Sept. 11 commission was so frustrated with repeated misstatements by the Pentagon and FAA about their response to the 2001 terror attacks that it considered an investigation into possible deception, the panel's chairmen say in a new book. …

"Fog of war could explain why some people were confused on the day of 9/11, but it could not explain why all of the after-action reports, accident investigations and public testimony by FAA and NORAD officials advanced an account of 9/11 that was untrue," the book states.

Vanity Fair has reported on "The NORAD Tapes" — but that provides only a glimpse of mid-level chaos at the Northeast Air Defense Sector, which was valiantly trying to see through that fog of war. We still don't know the bigger picture, farther up the chain of command.

So, again, we're left with the Official Answer: We don't know why NORAD was unable to demonstrate the same level of competence as the Royal Netherlands Air Force has just demonstrated.

We also, Officially, do not know why "FAA and NORAD officials advanced an account of 9/11 that was untrue."

Seems there's a lot we don't know.

  • Ray

    In fairness, I’m sure response procedures around the world were tightened up a little post-911.
    I’m amazed that the commission could decide that they were being lied to, but not follow up with investigations or prosecutions.

  • cjmr

    Do you really think that the 9/11 terrorists would have allowed themselves to be “escorted” back to an airport by even an infinite number of f-16s? I think they’d more likely either have crashed their planes into the nearest population center, or have forced the f-16s to shoot them down.

  • cjmr

    Ray, the 9/11 Commission didn’t have the power to prosecute anyone, just investigate and report.

  • zzyzx

    I think it’s the classic example of preparing for known situations. If 9/11 were caused by the Soviets, it would have been stopped, because we knew what to do then. Instead, people had to decide what to do in a case like this.
    There really was only a 40 minute gap. No one really knew what was going on until the second plane hit and there were jets scrambled to protect DC – the PA plane was taken down by the passengers first.
    The terrorists had the element of surprise. They don’t anymore in cases like that. It’s pretty unfair to compare NORAD’s reactions to someone years later who has hijacked planes crashing into buildings as a scenario they’re expecting.

  • Jesurgislac

    I remember that for quite some time after 9/11, I believed it more likely that the fourth plane had been shot down than that it had crashed, but that no one was letting on. (I don’t believe that any more, because I think by this time someone involved in shooting the fourth plane down would have let on what had really happened: too big a secret to stay quiet.)
    But the reason I believed this was because, once it had been established that the planes were being flown by hijackers with the intent of turning them into missiles that would kill everyone aboard anyway, the only choice NORAD had was: “Do we let the passengers die along with everyone in the building that is their target, or do we kill the passengers and the terrorists now to prevent mass deaths elsewhere?” It would, in fact, have been one of the clear instances where deliberately killing civilians is pardonable (see previous threads).
    But because they were American civilians, I suspected that no one was letting on.

  • Beth

    I think they’d more likely either have crashed their planes into the nearest population center, or have forced the f-16s to shoot them down.
    Yes, and either scenario would have been vastly preferable to what actually occurred. (That may sound heartless, but keep in mind that I live on one of those island population centers, and my neighborhood could have become the target of convenience.)
    No one really knew what was going on until the second plane hit.
    Anyone with any sense did. When I heard about the first plane (from a business associate who saw it from his office window), my first thought was “stupid pilot”, but when I learned a few minutes later that it was a commercial airliner, I had no doubt it was a deliberate attack. NORAD would have known much earlier — as soon as those planes went off course — that there was something seriously wrong. Even the passengers on the third plane where certain enough to take action before NORAD did.
    It’s pretty unfair to compare NORAD’s reactions to someone years later who has hijacked planes crashing into buildings as a scenario they’re expecting.
    Yes and no. Yes, because post-9/11, everyone became aware of the very real danger of that form of attack and no doubt instituted standard response procedures too it. It would be unrealistic to expect NORAD to respond as quickly and efficiently to the original attack. No, because US intelligence was already aware that al Qaeda was considering such an attack, and should have already considered how to respond. It would have almost certainly required higher level authorization, but there’s no reason that couldn’t have been accomplished within those 40 minutes, except that the Commander in Chief couldn’t be bothered to make an executive decision or authorize someone else to.

  • Edward Liu

    I thought the Vanity Fair piece explained pretty well why the reaction on 9/11 was as seemingly sluggish as it was and why the accounts given to the 9/11 commission didn’t gel.
    It also stated flat out that the order to shoot down a civilian airliner had to come from the President. Not Dick Cheney. Not the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Not anybody else in uniform. Definitely not from a jet jockey in an F-15 staring at a jet plane that might be heading for a civilian target. Which again brings up the question of “What was Bush DOING exactly that day?”
    It also brought up the extremely valid point that the attacks were done by 10:00 AM for the civilian population. It definitely was not over for the military until long after that.
    I’m also confused how the higher-ups in the chain of command were supposed to have a greater understanding of what was happening during the 9/11 attacks when the people who would be giving them that information was the NE Air Defense Sector (which, as Fred points out, was trying to pierce the fog of war as fast as it could) AND when a chunk of the Pentagon was in flames that morning as well. For that matter, even if they did, the VF article points out that there is a frightening lack of air defense resources allocated to the Eastern Seaboard. I think they said something like 2 Air Force Bases to cover Main to Virginia on any given day.
    So, no, the reaction that day was not ideal, but I think it’s also far short of the outright “Hell of a Job Brownie” incompetence demonstrated by FEMA and DHS.

  • Kate

    ok, this made me mad** enough that I skipped right over other ppl’s comments, so apologies if I’m duplicating here.
    On 9/11 NORAD was responsible for air defence against airplanes coming INTO the USA. All their radars were pointed outwards. One very important thing to note is that on 9/11 the hijacked planes were domestic flights. They weren’t coming over Canada from Russia, or transatlantic, they were already within US Airspace.
    I have been on websites for years watching people who are ill-informed, there are some great websites out there if you know where to look. for example 911myths.com has a collection of conspiracy theories and the facts that refute them.
    For the main myths about NORAD and the alleged (not here, but others have said it) “stand down” of the defences check this page:
    http://www.911myths.com/html/stand_down.html
    yes, prior to 9/11 the largest nation on the continent believed that all threats of that calibre would originate from outside it’s borders (and the borders of Canada as well, as they are part of NORAD and were key to early detection of attack from the USSR). In hindsight there was much in error with that assumption.
    I’d like to hear what they are doing to fix things today instead of listening to the old bunk about the intercepts that didn’t, that *couldn’t* happen on that fateful day. Let’s not compare apples and radiators.
    **I lurk on a few sites that regularily have 9/11 conspiracy nuts come in as a wave saying their “ah HA you didn’t consider this, it PROOOOVES that the government was in on it”. This makes me more than a little edgy when I see someone discuss a topic which I know has more detail and more information to it…. sorry if it looks like I flew off the handle.

  • none

    NORAD would have known much earlier — as soon as those planes went off course — that there was something seriously wrong.
    No.
    The people who would know that the plane was off course were the air traffic controllers. And since the terrorists turned off the plane transponders, which allow for the controllers to easily isolate the planes from the mass of data, the controllers would not necessarily know what was wrong or with what plane. In fact it took
    http://www.911myths.com/html/primary_radar.html
    NORAD didn’t know until someone phoned them that there were more planes over the USA that could be hijacked. It was not in their ‘jurisdiction’ it was not something that they had immediate access to.
    more information on intercepts and the “stand down” order:
    http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/defense/1227842.html?page=3&c=y (if you get to the final page you will find a list of the experts who helped prepare that report)
    http://www.debunking911.com/links.htm

  • Duane

    All’s well that ends well. Now we have a Departmnet of Homeland Security and a nify 5-color terror alert system. Problem fixed!

  • Jesurgislac

    Duane: All’s well that ends well. Now we have a Departmnet of Homeland Security and a nify 5-color terror alert system. Problem fixed!
    *sporfle* Damn, Duane, now you made me like you again…

  • Kevin

    Paul Thompson has an essay about the failures to defend the skies on 9/11. Worth a read.

  • bellatrys

    Everyone in New England assumed that morning, and for many moons thereafter, that a) the USAF had the capability to shoot down the planes and b) had already been ordered to do so by the White House, because that was the obvious thing, and could not understand why it had not already been done (if, indeed, it hadn’t – a lot of people, including Bushvoting flagwaving types working right down rt 28 from where one of the dead pilots had lived, assumed that the Pennsylvania crash WAS the government doing its duty, until we were told otherwise) because obviously the US govt would do anything to protect us, and civilian casualties be damned.
    I mean, we’d all seen all those movies and episodes of X-Files all those years, hadn’t we?

  • Sky-Ho

    We were told not to respond.

  • bulbul

    “No one comes close.” The Air Force stopped using that slogan because, well, someone came close — close enough to hit us hard, from the air.
    And I thought it was because of those Apophis’ motherships…

  • Dave Klecha

    1) The Netherlands is smaller than the US. US citizens don’t tolerate airbases close to population centers, meaning that air intercept craft have a non-trivial flight time to the target, especially if typical peacetime restrictions against hypersonic flight have not been lifted. The Dutch have no such problems as their country is half the size of Maine. The Dutch F-16s were also intercepting a plane with a working transponder in control of the original pilot at a known location. None of those were true of the 9/11 flights.
    2) The Dutch AF and air defense worldwide, in general, has become much more sensitive to the idea of civilian airliners-as-weapons, meaning that air defense now has an acknowledged and perpared-for “inward” posture, in addition to outward, which was true of none of the Air Forces and air defense systems pre-9/11.
    Nice specious comparison, though.

  • LL

    Since when does the US not tolerate airbases (I assume you mean AFB) near cities? There’s one smack dab in the middle of OKC – Tinker AFB (well, it’s technically in Midwest City, but the OKC metro is a big blob of cities all smushed together). I’m sure there are other examples.
    The 9/11 Commission can’t tell us things because it wasn’t meant to tell us things. It was meant to look like the government was trying to be accountable. But it’s not and it never was. That massive payoff to the families of the victims made sure of that. We paid them off so they wouldn’t sue the airlines and ugly details wouldn’t come out in a court that the government couldn’t control. I think a few families are still pursuing a lawsuit against the airlines, but haven’t heard what’s happening with that.
    The fact is, as “9/11″ and Katrina demonstrated, government can’t protect us against everything. And I wouldn’t even mind that if the government (past and present) and its toadies didn’t keep insisting that I agree with them that they can protect us. They want me to agree with them that they have to keep track of my phone calls, my Internet usage, my travel, they have to confiscate anything even vaguely liquid, all in the interest of protecting me from TERROR. They want more power and control because they like power and control, but they think I’m so stupid I think it’s about helping me. Or they want me to pretend I’m that stupid. And I ain’t that stupid and I don’t want to pretend.
    I don’t fault the Air Force for not shooting down airplanes. I never really thought they’d do it anyway, even if they were capable of it. I don’t think they’d do it even now. They have to say they’d do it, of course, but I don’t think they really would. Not a domestic flight. They might shoot down a flight originating from another country, but I don’t think they’d shoot down a US plane. I could be wrong. Guess we’ll find out if the big, bad terrorists manage to get hold of another plane.

  • Duane

    US citizens don’t tolerate airbases close to population centers
    Did your survey include citizens of Virginia Beach who were 80/20 in favor of keeping Oceana in VB when the Bushes were pressuring BRAC to move it to Texas or Florida?
    Didn’t think so.
    Nice specious argument tho.

  • Duane

    All’s well that ends well. Now we have a Departmnet of Homeland Security and a nify 5-color terror alert system. Problem fixed!
    *sporfle* Damn, Duane, now you made me like you again…
    Was it the insightful sarcasm or all the typoes? Jesus God. Sorry about that; surgery, meds, all that jazz. And that’s also my explanation for my recent surliness.

  • cjmr

    US citizens don’t tolerate airbases close to population centers
    And then there’s Andrews AFB, which is right next to DC. Based on the old flight paths for Reagan National, though, there is no way even Andrews could have scrambled anything fast enough take down the plane before it hit the Pentagon. There are less than three minutes airtime between ‘looking like it’s landing at National’ and hitting the Pentagon.

  • Linkmeister

    Mr. Klecha, here are a few more AFBs within city limits:
    Tucson: Davis Monthan AFB, right off 22nd Street. High-density population.
    Honolulu: Hickam AFB, right next to Pearl Harbor, within four miles of downtown in a very densely populated area.
    Lackland AFB: San Antonio, TX

  • LL

    Yeah, I knew there was one in San Antonio, couldn’t remember the name… anyway, people LOVE AFBs near them. They provide lots of high-paying government jobs and the subsequent spending of those government paychecks on stuff like food, cars, etc. Saying people won’t tolerate AFBs in high-pop areas is like saying people don’t like baskets of money and soft, fuzzy kittens. Some areas of the country are so desperate for decent-paying jobs, they’d take a nuclear energy plant, a prison, anything that pays better than Wal-Mart. So the (sort of) implication that AFBs are placed too far away from population centers (probably because of awful military-hating people, probably LIBERALS, we know how much they hate the military, they want us all to die) to allow planes to scramble in time to intercept a suspicious airplane is ill-informed.
    There are so many damn planes over the US at any given time, I would think it’d be nearly impossible for anybody to a) identify a “suspicious” one out of all those thousands and b) intercept it in time to prevent it from crashing into something. I guess the govt. doesn’t want to come out and acknowledge that, even if it would actually make them look somewhat less incompetent. Clearly, the weak link was/is airline security on the ground and in the air, but to acknowledge that would make the airlines look bad and give anybody suing them some sort of leverage. Wouldn’t want that.

  • wintermute

    > There are so many damn planes over the US at any given time, I would think it’d be nearly impossible for anybody to a) identify a “suspicious” one out of all those thousands and b) intercept it in time to prevent it from crashing into something.
    Aircraft have things called “transponders” that identify them, and are linked to a “flight plan” filed before take off. They’re tracked by something known as “radar”, operated by both military installations such as NORAD and civilian agencies like the FAA. If an aircraft turns off its transponder, it’s identified as “something suspicious” within a minute. Veering off-course can take rather longer to establish as being more than an honest mistake, but USAF jets intercepted 129 “suspicious” aircraft (out of 425 deviations from flight plan) in 2000 alone.
    Flight 11 (the first 9/11 flight to be hijacked) was idenified as suspicious at 8:13 am, even before its transponder was turned off. It was confirmed as a hi-jacking at 8:24 am, 22 minutes before impact. All of the flights were identified as suspicious and as confirmed hi-jackings in plenty of time for aircraft to be scrambled, given the number of bases around New England that maintain 5 minute intercept readiness.
    Clearly, they were identified in time for them to have been intercepted. But, somehow, NORAD managed to do nothing.
    (All data taken from the essay linked to above)

  • Silent Sound

    Men from diverted dutch plane to be released after investigation shows no signs of intended wrongdoing. Startling levelheadedness displayed by officials on all sides:
    Article here
    I wonder if we’ll ever find out what happened with that woman in Virginia last week whose water bottle tested positive for explosives at the airport, prompting the temporary shutdown of the airport.

  • Duane

    Flight 11 (the first 9/11 flight to be hijacked) was idenified as suspicious at 8:13 am, even before its transponder was turned off. It was confirmed as a hi-jacking at 8:24 am, 22 minutes before impact. All of the flights were identified as suspicious and as confirmed hi-jackings in plenty of time for aircraft to be scrambled, given the number of bases around New England that maintain 5 minute intercept readiness.
    Clearly, they were identified in time for them to have been intercepted. But, somehow, NORAD managed to do nothing.
    It was quite likely a failure of leadership, which is why the Top Brass lied. The running thread through the 6 years of the Bush junta has been a consistent failure of leadership. Not surprising since we didn’t elect a leader but a “decider”.

  • LL

    I know about radar and transponders and even airplanes (those are the big, loud things with wings, right?), am familiar with the timeline and certainly agree there was a great deal of govt incompetence on Sept 11, 2001, but it’s a great big leap between identifying a “suspicious” aircraft or deciding that it definitely has been hijacked to deciding it MUST be shot down. I don’t know about anybody else, but if I thought the govt’s automatic response to every possible hijacking now was to just shoot down the passenger plane, I’d rather not fly at all, thanks very much. But I don’t think that it is their policy, even now. Faulting NORAD for not going out and shooting down every “suspicious” plane at the first hint of trouble seems a bit unfair. Would we want the govt to automatically shoot down every plane that failed to identify itself or didn’t respond to communications right away? I wouldn’t. Mechanical snafus happen all the time. And I have a feeling that there are a great many more than 425 deviations a year. Those may be the ones that get documented, but I’d bet a large sum of money there’s more than that.
    Saying that everyone on the ground knew exactly what was going on on Sept. 11, 2001 in time to “intercept” the planes but chose not to is easy to say when you’re not the one looking at the screens and making the decisions. We can say in hindsight now that those planes were doomed anyway and should have been shot down, but we really expect that everyone was supposed to know that on that day? Three of the planes were flying over highly populated areas, but someone was supposed to know for a fact that all were destined to fly into buildings and make the decision to shoot all of them down? I hate to be in the position of defending any govt action, but I’m actually willing to give them this one. Guess I’m just a big old softy.

  • wintermute

    > There are so many damn planes over the US at any given time, I would think it’d be nearly impossible for anybody to a) identify a “suspicious” one out of all those thousands and b) intercept it in time to prevent it from crashing into something.
    > it’s a great big leap between identifying a “suspicious” aircraft or deciding that it definitely has been hijacked to deciding it MUST be shot down.
    Ah. I thought you were saying it was nearly impossible to identify a “suspicious” [aircraft] out of all those thousands, or to intercept it in time to prevent it from crashing into something. No doubt my confusion came from you using those exact words. Had I realised you meant “I know it’s possible to identify and intercept suspicious aircraft, but I don’t think shooting down passenger planes should be a first response”, I wouldn’t have argued that it’s quite common for the FAA, NORAD and the USAF to identify and intercept suspicious aircraft. I didn’t realise that “intercept” and “destroy” were synonyms. I’m sure the pilots of the 129 aircraft intercepted in 2000 would agree.
    Of course I agree that it would be over the top for every passenger aircraft that loses radio contact to be destroyed. But interception provides more options than mere firepower – if the hijackers are not suicidal, then they can be forced to land away from populated areas, for example.
    If, on the other hand, they are suicidal, and are approaching a major city, then there are very few options available, if you don’t intercept. And, of course, only the President can authorise shooting down a commercial aircraft – the people “looking at the screens” are emphatically not making that decision. They’re simply making the decision to investigate further, and to have the resources on hand to take whatever steps the Commander-in-Chief feels he has to make. You know, if he feels that protecting the nation is more important that reading to kindergarten students.
    I’d like to think it’s possible to get Special Forces on board, a la Executive Decision, but I can’t imagine how your average AFB would be set up for such a thing.
    > Saying that everyone on the ground knew exactly what was going on on Sept. 11, 2001 in time to “intercept” the planes but chose not to is easy to say when you’re not the one looking at the screens and making the decisions.
    Yes, I imagine that it would be easy to say. Did anyone actually say that? Personally, I don’t think everyone on the ground knew exactly what was going on. But the relevant authorities did know that the planes had been hi-jacked. After the impact of Flight 11, I don’t think it was a huge stretch of the imagination to consider the possibility that the other aircraft were also going to be used as weapons.
    Being a big old softy myself, I don’t know if they should have been shot down. Ideally, I’d like to have seen them force the jets to land (even more ideally, without crashing) away from their targets. But that would have required an intercept with jet fighters. Do you think that this would have been a horrible thing to try?

  • LL

    Never mind.

  • Jacob Davies

    I’m curious whether the FAA regulations have been amended to include transponders that can’t be interfered with in-flight. That alone seems like it would have saved a lot of problems.
    The near-total lack of air defense that comes up in the V.F. article is quite shocking – I mean, I am no fan of military spending in general, but the reason it’s called “Defense” is because it’s supposed to be, um, defending us. From the sounds of things, there were more planes patrolling the no-fly zone in Iraq in 2001 than armed & ready in the US. I think if you had asked any civilian even in 2001 whether 4 fighter jets was enough to have on alert for the defense of the entire north-eastern US, they’d have said “FOUR???”

  • bellatrys

    US citizens don’t tolerate airbases close to population centers
    That’s why there was no public outcry from the [densely-populated] Seacoast Region when they finally decided to shut down Pease AFB. Nope, not a bit of a fight to keep it, whatsoever. Nor years of depressed economy thereafter, until they finally got it converted over to civilian air and business uses. And why there is no such thing as Hanscom or Andrews, either.

  • bellatrys

    I wonder if we’ll ever find out what happened with that woman in Virginia last week whose water bottle tested positive for explosives at the airport, prompting the temporary shutdown of the airport
    Silent Sound, I saw on the subsequent news feeds that multiple subsequent tests found *no* explosives nor anything wrong with her water whatsoever, and it seems to have been a false positive generated, like all of these planes being turned around and passengers kicked off the last few days, due to the fact that she was guilty of travelling while Pakistani.

  • Kevin

    but it’s a great big leap between identifying a “suspicious” aircraft or deciding that it definitely has been hijacked to deciding it MUST be shot down
    But four planes were crashed. Even if the first two aircraft weren’t shot down, the final two should have been. There was plenty of time for them to have been.

  • Duane

    But four planes were crashed. Even if the first two aircraft weren’t shot down, the final two should have been. There was plenty of time for them to have been.
    I’m not sure it’s that simple. Would we want to automatically deprive the passengers, air marshalls, attendants and pilots the opportunity to devise a solution if there was no immediate threat to anyone outside of the plane?

  • Garnet

    Would we want to automatically deprive the passengers, air marshalls, attendants and pilots the opportunity to devise a solution if there was no immediate threat to anyone outside of the plane?
    If memory serves, the pilots were dead, and there were no air marshalls on those two flights. That having been said, while shooting down planes willy-nilly is pretty clearly insupportable, the fact is that two planes had already been used as weapons against civilian targets; it would have been reasonable to assume, on Sept. 11, that any plane which behaved erratically was a potentially immediate threat to people outside the plane. Order it to change course or land first, obviously, but any aircraft that didn’t comply could ceretainly have been reasonably forced from the air.

  • Duane

    I think we agree that shooting down our own passenger planes willy-nilly is unsupportable. I’d go further and suggest that shooting them down just willy, or even simply nilly is unsupportable. I think such an extreme action should be the very last option of very many options considered and depending on circumstances, perhaps not considered at all.

  • puzzled

    The Dutch Air Force reacted competently to a threat… What is surprising about this? All the Dutch people I’ve met were very competent about their job. Why should a small developed country be necessarily worse in something than the US?

  • Ken

    What nobody in this thread has pointed out was that 9/11 was an unexpected bold move. Unexpected bold moves (like Pearl Harbor) usually work the first time through; after that they are no longer unexpected and tend to fail.
    NORAD’s structure and attitude was based around the Cold War scenario of nuclear war with the USSR, and was optimized for that. After the Second Russian Revolution, NORAD continued with its mission — defense against a nation trying to launch a war in an expected manner. Just add bureaucratic inertia.
    I think we agree that shooting down our own passenger planes willy-nilly is unsupportable. I’d go further and suggest that shooting them down just willy, or even simply nilly is unsupportable. I think such an extreme action should be the very last option of very many options considered and depending on circumstances, perhaps not considered at all.
    There was an online comic a couple years ago that had a mock news broadcast that went something like this:
    “Transportation Secretary Nimeta(?) announced today that airline pilots will NOT be armed ‘because of possible danger to the aircraft and passengers’. Instead, the Air Force will be authorized to shoot down the plane and all aboard.”
    (Can’t have those EEVIL guns, you know…)

  • Jesurgislac

    Ken: after 11th September 2001, the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, was responsible for a series of intensive practice runs by the emergency services and some intensive planning for what would happen if terrorists hit the London Underground.
    The reason for doing this was that either he or his advisers had worked out that this was where London would be most affected if terrorists decided to strike: it was only sensible to plan for the worst possible terrorist attack.
    And so on 7th July 2005, when terrorists did attack the London Underground, only 52 people died, though over 700 were injured. The emergency services performed superbly: they said that by luck they had had a drill not even a month earlier, but it was good planning and sensible foresight that meant there was a drill.
    On 26th February, 1993, terrorists attacked the WTC. Six people were killed: over 1000 were injured. What did New York City/State/the US do in response to this attack? What did the owners of the WTC do? Was any planning done to ensure how people would escape from the WTC if the worst happened? Practice drills done to make sure everyone in the building knew how to leave it promptly? Rescue service drills to make sure that if the next terrorist attack succeeded in its objective, bringing down either or both towers, the emergency services would know how to respond? Nope. None of that happened. No one was responsible, and over 2600 people died.
    London had got used to IRA bombings, which were usually warned about: the terrorist attack on the WTC brought Livingstone to think of the possibilities of terrorist attack without warning. But the US has enough experience of terrorist attacks without warning – both domestic terrorists and foreign terrorists – that they shouldn’t have needed 9/11 to wake them up to plan for “what if the worst happens?”
    Hell, we saw with Katrina that the current federal government cannot plan for the worst even when the worst is far more predictable than a terrorist attack. Casualties in New Orleans would have been far greater if terrorists had bombed the levees, not a hurricane, but FEMA would have reacted just as incompetently.

  • Duane

    There was an online comic a couple years ago that had a mock news broadcast that went something like this:
    “Transportation Secretary Nimeta(?) announced today that airline pilots will NOT be armed ‘because of possible danger to the aircraft and passengers’.
    You’ve been watching too many Die Hard movies. Do you think pilots are automatically weapons-proficient because they wear uniforms? Or are you one of those folks that thinks we’d all be safer if everyone was packing?
    Instead, the Air Force will be authorized to shoot down the plane and all aboard.”
    I guess it takes a comic to link those two decisions as if they were decided at the same time. I think the first decision is smart. I’ve already commented on the second one.
    (Can’t have those EEVIL guns, you know…)
    Do you think they made the decision not to arm pilots because “they” think guns are EEVIL? I guess that’s the kind of logic that one develops by getting their news from comics.


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