9/11 @ 20: It Could Have Been So Much Worse!

For those who were alive on September 11th, 2001, the events of the day seemed horrible beyond measure. But with the sober perspective that comes from two decades of hindsight, we're bound to admit that things could have turned out much worse, in countless ways.

For instance, even though only two of the seven buildings that made up the World Trade Center complex were hit by airplanes, all seven suffered heavily. Early media attention focused on the "collapse" of Buildings 1 and 2. And later we learned that Building 7 had also "collapsed". But until recently, only a few dedicated researchers were aware that Buildings 3, 4, 5, and 6 were also destroyed on the same day. Nowadays, thanks to the exceedingly free flow of information that we currently enjoy, most people know all about this.

And in light of these facts, we must accept an unpleasant truth: Rogue airliners can do infinitely more damage than we previously thought. To be honest, we ought to be grateful that the impacts of those two airplanes hitting those two buildings didn't destroy all of Wall Street, or most of Manhattan, or half of New York State, or a significant portion of the Eastern Seaboard. We're lucky that none of these things happened, because clearly if they had, we would be in much worse shape than we are now.

If the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania had left any wreckage above-ground, or any sign of wreckage below-ground, the scene might have presented grave difficulties to the investigators, who might have had some physical evidence that they might have been required to fit into their explanation of the event. Fortunately, they were only required to explain how a passenger jet had disappeared without a trace, except for a hijacker's bandana, and this for them was a much easier problem.

Similarly, if the plane that hit the Pentagon had left wreckage on the lawn outside the building, the investigators might have been required to associate that wreckage with a particular airplane, and then they might have felt the need to explain why that airplane had made a hole in the wall which was much smaller than itself and no bigger than a cruise missile.

But fortunately none of this ever happened, and no uncomfortable questions were ever raised, so the news media didn't feel compelled to ignore them. It's almost impossible to guess how much worse off we would be now if any of those things had happened.

If the collapse of a skyscraper -- Building 7, for instance -- had been reported by a major news provider -- such as the BBC -- 20 minutes before it happened, people might have begun to suspect that the entire sequence of events, including all the news broadcasts, had been a scripted presentation, and that somehow a stage manager had called a cue ahead of schedule. It's difficult to imagine how people could be expected to believe that the attacks were a surprise -- or anything else they saw on the news -- if anything like that had ever happened.

Similarly, it's hard to imagine what would have happened if some of the hijackers, having died in the fiery crashes, turned up alive and well (but perplexed to see their names and photos on the news) in the days following the attacks. Even given that they were all devout Muslims, it would have been difficult for us to understand how they had survived their suicide missions, so we're lucky that we didn't have to do so.

As we all know, the US government could have decided in the wake of the attacks to mount a politically motivated coverup rather than a full and impartial investigation. It's a good thing that didn't happen, because it might have divided and destabilized our entire society.

It's also fortunate that the investigation didn't begin until the retaliatory attack had been in progress for more than a year. Otherwise the attempt to positively identify the perpetrators could have delayed the necessarily swift retribution leveled against them.

This was an echo of another lucky break: on the morning of 9/11, the FBI knew the identities of all 19 hijackers before the FAA knew that four planes had been hijacked. This was a crucial advantage which allowed the investigation to continue even in the absence of evidence.

If the investigation had been a sham, there would have been people who were smart enough to see that something was amiss and brave enough to say so. And those people would been marginalized or worse, and nobody wanted to see anything like that happen, so in the long run we're all benefiting from the independent investigation and the comprehensive report it produced.

If that report hadn't been eminently sensible and perfectly credible, people might have been open to the idea that government's story was a deliberately (if shabbily) concocted lie, and they might have suspected that maybe somebody other than Osama bin Laden had been behind the attacks. And it's an extremely good thing that nothing like this ever happened, because it could have caused a serious problem for Israeli intelligence.

For similar reasons, I'm happy to report that no Israeli leaders expressed pleasure at the news of the attacks. If, for example, an Israeli statesman had said, "It's good", he might have felt compelled to add, "Well, it's not good, but it will generate immediate sympathy for Israel." Otherwise his words might have caused a bit of unwarranted tension between the US and its most important Middle Eastern ally, possibly with a detrimental effect on the War on Terror.

Speaking of the War on Terror: The Bush administration could have used 9/11 as a pretext to invade a country that had nothing to do with the attacks, and in this way the US might have become entangled in a war that could have lasted almost twenty years. We're lucky that didn't happen. It certainly would have been expensive.

In fact, they could also have used 9/11 as a pretext to attack many other counties, none of which had anything to do with the attacks, and in that way the US might have become entangled in several simultaneous unwarranted wars. We dodged a bullet on that one. Think of how much it would have cost. And think of how much damage it would have done to innocent people all around the world!

The Israelis could have used 9/11 as a pretext to commit unspeakable crimes against the Palestinians, much as they usually do with no pretext, but this time without the usual repercussions. I'm happy to say they didn't do that.

Had they done so, it would have looked opportunistic, except to those who understand how much planning a major military operation requires, even if it's only a major military operation against defenseless civilians. For those people, an Israeli attack launched in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 would have seemed a sure sign of foreknowledge. So it's very fortunate that nothing of the sort actually happened.

Speaking of foreknowledge, it's almost a miracle that no scientific paper pertaining to the attacks was published on the 12th of September, since everyone in the scientific community, knowing what it takes to get a paper published, would have been certain that the paper in question must have been written long before the the attacks occurred. As you can imagine, the implications would have been slightly embarrassing, both to the authors of the paper and to the "scientific" journal that published it.

All around the world, governments at all levels could have used 9/11 as an excuse to crack down on civil liberties, "justifying" warrantless surveillance, arbitrary censorship, indefinite confinement without charge or trial, and torture, among other evils. In the US specifically, law enforcement services could have been militarized in a way that might have turned the police against the people, perhaps with dire consequences. We're lucky that none of these things have happened, for many reasons, none of which I would be at liberty to mention if they had.

The fear engendered by 9/11 could have been deliberately magnified, for instance by repeated warnings about impending terrorist attacks, and if this had happened, the American people might have developed a national psychosis, which may have caused them to elect a series of clueless buffoons to the most important offices in the land. We can all be thankful that this didn't happen, because if Americans were just a bit less diligent about electing the greatest candidates the world's greatest democracy can produce, the whole world might be in a spot of bother just now.

Repeated warnings about "impending terrorist attacks" could have been "justified" by repeated arrests of "terror cells", and these cells could have turned out to be not only "infiltrated by" but actually "created by" informers working for the FBI or other law enforcement agencies. If this had happened, people might have lost their faith, not only in their current government, but in their current "system" of government. And we're lucky that no such thing has ever happened, because a democratic government can have no greater asset than the faith of its people.

Of course, anyone with any imagination can think of any number of horrible things that could have happened but didn't. But if any of the hypothetical events described above had actually happened, telling the truth about certain things might have become so dangerous that most of us might have stopped doing so, leaving only those who could find tricky ways to do it safely.

For instance, people might have tried to disguise the truth as humor, or as fiction. Or they might have tried to camouflage it by claiming that certain events had never happened when they clearly had, or insisting that other events had happened when they clearly had not.

In the most extreme cases, some essayists might have started writing the opposite of what they really meant, leaving little "clues" behind and hoping their readers would be smart enough to pick up on those clues and re-read their essays with the understanding that every phrase or sentence could potentially mean the exact opposite of what it appears to say.

Many such essays were written by dissident Soviet writers in the 20th century, and of course they were difficult for readers to understand, especially at first glance. But the Soviets were struggling under a tyrannical system which could exist only by feeding its citizens an endless stream of lies. So even the truth-tellers had to start lying.

Fortunately, we haven't seen any contemporary essays written in such a style, at least not yet.

So we're in pretty good shape so far.

OK, maybe "pretty good" is not the same as "very good". But still, things could have turned out much worse than they did.

You do believe me, don't you?


Of course I believe you

I believe every word. It is unpatriotic not to.
Yes, we all dodged a bullet 20 years ago!

I knew you'd believe me, James ...

You're far too smart not to!

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