It’s kind of a thing

September 12, 2001

You don’t need me to tell you what happened yesterday. By now, anyone with regular access to television, wire services, or the Internet knows about the attacks which destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center and punched a hole in the Pentagon.

Perhaps, like me, they’ve spent several hours watching footage, reading sketchy details on-line, and discussing it with friends and family until the whole thing takes on an unreal cast. I’ve seen the impact of the second plane at the World Trade Center so many times from so many angles that I no longer have an emotional response to it. Yet, it still doesn’t seem real.

I heard about the plane collisions on the radio while driving to work, although I was thinking in terms of Cessnas until somebody mentioned Boeing 767s. The first tower collapse happened just after I arrived at work and left my car, so I missed the live coverage. I had a hard time believing that the towers had, in fact, collapsed. No way, I thought, that Can’t Happen.

Even now, having seen the footage so many times from so many sources, I haven’t quite accepted it.

As one would expect, the desire to know what was happening swamped the phone networks and popular news sites. Dave Winer and Doc Searls, among others, have collected news and reactions. There’s quite a bit out there, and I won’t try and summarize it all.

Salon has good speculation about why the towers collapsed.

John Perry Barlow, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, draws an uncomfortable parallel to the Reichstag fire:

Within a few hours, we will see beginning the most vigorous efforts to end what remains of freedom in America. Those of who are willing to sacrifice a little—largely illusory—safety in order to maintain our faith in the original ideals of America will have to fight for those ideals just as vigorously.

That may, hopefully, be an overreaction. But already people are blaming cryptography software for terrorism, since freely-available privacy software makes it much easier for terrorists to communicate secretly. (Incidentally, the process of hiding a message in an unrelated image or document is known as “steganography”, not “encryption”.)

Eric S. Raymond looks at the lessons of the disaster, arguing that freedom is more important that safety. I can’t say I agree with his conclusions, but I’m not awake enough to give alternatives.

I’ve only seen one person, I think it was the Archbishop of Washington, D.C., make the point that the attacks were the work of a small group of madmen, not an entire ethnic group or religion (I don’t want to say “Arab” and “Muslim”, because nothing is known for certain, no matter how likely Osama bin Laden is as a suspect). People I know at work actually left early because of fears of persecution, and that saddens me.

A lot of people are calling for military action—I did too, earlier today—but I don’t think it’s the answer. Doc linked to a long article about the metaphors underlying our justifications for war which was written during the Gulf War and contains a great deal of information about attitudes in the Middle East. After reading it, I no longer think that crushing the terrorist groups is all that good an idea—doing so will strengthen their movement—but I’m not sure what the alternative is.

In any case, we must not strike until we know where and what we hope to accomplish.