Monday, September 11, 2006

United We Stand

September 11, 2006 finds me in Austin, Texas, the state capital. As I sat in my hotel room last night, working through the night to prepare for a meeting with one of my clients at 7am, 9/11 documentaries were being broadcast on the History Channel, playing in the background, beguiling me away from the here and now, and taking me back in time to September 11, 2001. I was in Sacramento at the time, staying with a friend who woke me up at about 6am PDT to tell me that a terrorist attack had just taken place. I woke up just in time to see the second plane crash into the south tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. Two other planes that had been hijacked by the 9/11 conspirators, but had not yet crashed, and I remember thinking to myself that the attack I had witnessed on the World Trade Center was probably the first of many attacks that would signal the beginning of World War III.

As it turned out, the attack on the World Trade Center was the worst of the worst of the worst that would happen that day or any day since. While the attack on the Pentagon was tragic, it could not compare to the destruction and loss of life that resulted from the attack on the World Trade Center, and the brave passengers on the remaining hijacked plane gave their lives to prevent the 9/11 conspirators on that plane from reaching their target. Astonishingly, there was apparently a fifth plane that would have been hijacked by the 9/11 conspirators but for the fact that the pilot of that plane got wind of what was happening and took it upon himself to stay on the ground, something that I did not know until yesterday. The would-be hijackers of that plane fled the scene and have never been apprehended. Even more astonishing is the fact that air traffic controllers and dispatchers in the United States and Canada were able to get every other commercial plane in the United States back on the ground safely.

Faced with an unprecedented state of emergency, air traffic controllers and dispatchers had no protocols for many of the emergencies that they encountered on 9/11. They had to take charge, think for themselves, and come up with new ideas. Then they had to coordinate their actions with other people amid the ongoing confusion. When all was said and done, one would expect that the people reviewing these emerging strategies after the fact would have come up with new protocols for dealing with other, similar catastrophes that might occur in the future. However, after very careful consideration, the people reviewing the decisions of air traffic controllers and dispatchers on 9/11 came to the conclusion that the lack of established protocols gave the people responding to various emergencies on 9/11 the freedom to draw upon their collective experience and make decisions that worked much better than any established protocol could hope to work.

Freedom is an acquired taste. Most people are grateful to have a rule book to quote, or to have someone else in charge, someone who thinks like them, but who's smarter, and who knows what to do in an emergency. But it wasn't a rule book that kept the 9/11 conspirator on the fourth plane from reaching their target on 9/11. And it wasn't a rule book that prompted the pilot of the fifth plane to stay on the ground, thereby thwarting the plans of the 9/11 conspirators who had boarded his plane. And it certainly wasn't a rule book that got all those planes out of the air and back on the ground. It was resolute individuals who accomplished all that, people who knew how to think for themselves and coordinate their actions with other resolute individuals in a time of unprecedented crisis. No one needed to tell them what to do.

As I returned to my hotel room this afternoon, a melancholy feeling started to take hold of me. The sky was grey, and the flags on the Texas State Capitol and elsewhere were all flying at half-mast. September 11th didn't seem like history at all. It seemed like it had just happened, and that the United States was still under attack. And yet everyone was going on about their daily business as though nothing were wrong. Meanwhile, the marquees on the ubiquitous buses of the Austin Capital Metro flashed a repeating message that seemed to speak directly to me and put everything back in perspective: United We Stand. And I thought to myself, "United we stand, but only if everyone knows how to think for themselves."

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