What I Am Reading: Graham Allison

I just finished the recent article by Allison in the current Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. He claims that nuclear terrorism is easy to carry out, which when coupled with the easily believed willingness to carry out makes my knees clatter. This article makes me think my grandmother might have been correct to beg me not to move to DC and not to take a job in Manhattan. If a nuclear device is set off in the US it seems the only way I will not be caught in it is if I am on the train in Delaware.

There is another place the article struck my fascination. When Allison discusses the reason 9/11 was allowed to happen was because of a lack of imagination he touches on a subject I have been dealing with for a while now. Clearly he thinks fictionalizing terrorism before 9/11 could have allowed 9/11 to have been prevented. Maybe the airport security would have been looking for box cutters or, this seems more plausible, the passengers would have been less cooperative. It is this very reason that I find the current rules preventing sharp objects on planes to be not only ineffective but also counter-productive.

Flight 93, which was supposedly crashed in Pennsylvania instead of the White House, is the proof of my argument. The passengers knew what had happened to the World Trade Center towers and maybe even the Pentagon, which is why they abandoned their cooperative tone and attacked the hijackers. Until 9/11 we were told hijackers wanted to leave the country so we should cooperate and we would be safe. The hijackers knew this story and used it to their advantage. Flight 93 proves things are now different. People will fight back. Let the hijackers arm themselves with box cutters, I say they will be horribly outnumbered by the normal passengers, who are also able to be as well-armed as the hijackers. What is needed is a ban on explosives and devices that rely upon explosives, such as guns. But knives? All the ban does is make the crew and the passengers more vulnerable to an unarmed hijacker trained in combat. The hijackers did not break into the flight decks with box cutters, rather they threatened to kill people. This threat combined with the SOP for dealing with hijackers, the pilots allowed, as they were supposed to, the hijackers into the flight decks. The danger is and was not the weapon but the story we told ourselves about airline hijacking.

We failed to imagine a different type of airline hijacking. We failed to imagine them attacking military and non-military targets in the manner they did. Allison argues we are failing to conceive of other scenarios. The DOD’s hiring of movie producers and creative folk in the aftermath of 9/11 makes me question this analysis. Maybe we are not being creative enough, maybe we need to plaster the airwaves and our media with terrorism stories. Although then we will have a population more afraid than they normally would be.

The fictionalization of cataclysm would also allow us to minimize the scope of the Real and prepare for things that would normally catch us off guard. Instead of cowering in fear, more fictionalizations would allow us to be reactive and might even save some lives. Had we anticipated the collapse of the twin towers we could have saved the lives of many police and firefighters. We also could have devised some recovery methods and maybe saved some of the people trapped above the burning floors. Fiction should be a realm of politics and political scientists. Instead of scoffing we need more proactive stories, more exploratory stories.

I am afraid for my life and the lives of my loved ones. But I do love living in DC. I love commuting to Manhattan. I am willing to take such risks partially because I think the stories we are being told are too insecure. Life needs to be lived and not reduced to corner cowerings. I think there is less risk from a terrorist attack than Allison and Bush think there is. Although maybe I tell myself that. Maybe the reason I want to post my thoughts so badly is precisely because I do think something is inevitable.

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