Building a defense that defends

Thoughts on building a defense that actually defends, on this tenth anniversary of the successful terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 (9/11)

The most successful defense is one that makes it unnecessary to strike back at an enemy, because the enemy is either unable to mount a successful attack, or is deterred from doing so.

Deterrence does not work with fanatics who are willing to die themselves in the act of attacking someone else. However, deterrence could work against the sponsors of terrorism. Thanks to extensive investigation both before and after 9/11 we know who it is that sponsored the nineteen young men who hijacked four American commercial aircraft and flew them into the two tall buildings at the World Trade Center in New York, and the Pentagon building of the U.S. Department of Defense near Washington, DC.

Follow the money is a maxim for showing the way to the source of wrongdoing. We know that an oil-rich autocracy in the Middle East has financed an especially violent and militant branch of Islam that builds and operates religious schools where would be suicidal terrorists are indoctrinated. In this still existing era of nation states appropriate pressure by the U.S. and other wealthy nations possibly could cause state sponsors of terrorism to cease their sponsorship. No such pressure has been tried.

That is, however, a primitive and indirect means of preventing attack, by attempting  to cut off funding for terrorism at the source of the funding.

More effective and less dubious are the prospects for preventing terrorists from implementing the final and fatal steps in their aggressive plans.

Effective defense starts with anticipating the kind of attack one wants to prevent. The U.S. and the entire world had ample advance warning of the possibility commercial aircraft could be hijacked and flown into buildings, causing their unspent fuel to create a fiery inferno that could cause enormous damage.  What follows is a chronological list of events that provided advance notice of the possibility of 9/11.

In the mid 1940s a U.S. military plane exploded on collision with the Empire State Building in New York. While the plane was destroyed and all its unspent fuel burned on contact with the building, the damage was limited because fire resistant concrete had been used to limit the spread of fire in the Empire State Building.

Three decades later, when the World Trade Center buildings in New York were under construction, the use of asbestos was banned out of concern that asbestos was a health hazard. Asbestos was used for the lowest one third of one of the two buildings and not at all in the second building. The first building hit by an airplane on 9/11 was the second to collapse, because the asbestos on lower floors impeded the melting of the steel structure. It was that melting of the steel that destroyed both buildings, rather than having the damage contained to the floors where the airplanes struck. Given the risks to life from not using asbestos, it seems likely that it would have been beneficial to seek ways to use it that would minimize health hazards while still obtaining the fire retardant benefits of asbestos.

In the 1960s terrorists began to hijack commercial aircraft. The Israeli airline, El Al, suffered a single hijacking in 1968 and thereafter instituted protective measures to minimize the chance of a terrorist getting on to an El Al airplane. El Al has suffered no hijacking since 1968.

For a country as large as the U.S. it would entail great expense to prevent terrorists from boarding aircraft in the U.S. or inbound to the U.S. from outside our country. However, the financial cost of 9/11 is reputed to be $200 billion or more, an amount that seems likely far larger than the expense of requiring El Al type security before permitting any commercial aircraft to take off in the U.S. or to take off from another country on a flight bound for the U.S.

The U.S. suffered losses from terrorist bombings, suicidal and otherwise, in the 1982 truck bomb attack against U.S. marines in Lebanon, a truck bomb attack on one of the New York World Trade Center buildings in 1993, the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and a small boat bomb attack on a U.S. navy ship (the S.S. Cole) in Yemen in 2000.

In the mid 1990s the U.S., with the cooperation of the government of the Philippines, thwarted a terrorist plan to hijack several U.S. bound commercial aircraft and blow them up over the Pacific Ocean.

Also in the mid 1990s security forces of the French government thwarted an attempt of terrorists to fly a hijacked commercial aircraft into the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The terrorists succeeded in hijacking the aircraft, but were overwhelmed in Marseilles, in the south of France, when the aircraft landed to take on more fuel.

Taking into account the foregoing, U.S. government security agencies had the information necessary to anticipate something like 9/11 would be attempted and to obtain cooperation from the Congress and the executive branch of government  in implementing security procedures that would have prevented the 9/11 terrorists from getting on board the aircraft they planned to hijack.

It is sad that it took 9/11 to galvanize better security for commercial aircraft. In a world where security measures could be implemented by air transport companies and airports on their own, without interference by the state, one can anticipate that privately owned airline companies and airports would compete with each other  to provide the greatest assurance of security. For example, airports could deny permission to land to any commercial aircraft, no matter where a flight originated, not operated with the security necessary to prevent potential wrongdoers from boarding an aircraft.

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