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The Hidden Meaning of 9/11
Michael DiMercurio | September 12, 2006

I couldn't help myself from tuning into the streaming video feed of CNN's coverage of the events of September 11, 2001, synchronized to real time. The video was eye opening, but not just because of the obvious things. Here are the first things I noticed:

  • As American Airlines Flight 11 rocketed south over Westchester County on the way to Manhattan, CNN had on a fluff piece about maternity fashions. The bare swollen belly of a pregnant model filled the screen as the hijacked jet approached the island.

  • At the instant of impact, CNN had gone to a commercial.

  • Incredibly, after the commercial, there was a business piece on the air about Boeing stock.

  • The fires were already raging when CNN finally tuned in. Until the second plane hit, as if it were an odd but routine high-rise building fire, CNN continued to display the Dow Jones, NASDAQ and S&P index reading on the screen.

  • CNN at first didn't have much of an idea what had happened, merely repeating that ìunconfirmed reportsî had it that a small plane had flown into the World Trade Center. After a minute of floundering, CNN's VP of finance was put on the phone. The man had a window office a mile away and saw the first impact. He insisted it was a commercial jet with two engines.

  • For the eighteen minutes between jet impacts, CNN thought that a wayward navigation beacon had somehow directed the plane into the building -- ignoring common sense, visual and instrument flight rules and the crystal clear visibility.

  • Ten minutes after United 175 exploded into the south tower, CNN was still scratching their heads that malfunctioning navigation equipment or autopilots put the planes into the buildings. A caller even handed them the answer, stating that the second plane's wings were wiggling and that it deliberately turned into the south tower, and that it was a kamikaze pilot. Yet still CNN anchors refused to recognize that the crash as deliberate. Finally some clear-thinking staffer at CNN read the Associated Press wire, which said the FBI suspected that the first flight was hijacked.

  • It took almost twenty minutes after the AP wire of the hijacking became known that CNN said the word ìterrorism.î

  • When the south tower collapsed, CNN thought it was another explosion. No one thought the building had come down.

  • When CNN did finally understand that the south tower had collapsed, they commented about how sad it was that only one building would remain standing.

  • When the Pentagon was hit by American Airlines flight 77, CNN finally got it right that it had been a coordinated terrorist assault.

I'm not saying that CNN was incompetent. They actually did one of the best jobs on the air that day, and five years later had the guts to put their real time news on the air.

So how should we interpret our 9/11 naivetÈ? And were our leaders as stunned and surprised as CNN and the American people were? Many people have wondered about the extent of the government's foreknowledge, and if someone in power ìallowedî the attack to happen (just as allegations have been made about Roosevelt evacuating the aircraft carriers from Pearl Harbor and letting the Japanese take their best shot as a means to get America into World War II). Several elements point to this not being the case.

Later, 9/11 came to be blamed on a ìfailure of imagination.î Government agencies and officials couldn't imagine a time-on-target suicide attack being so successful, and no one wondered what would happen if airplanes were flown into the World Trade Center.

But fiction authors did. Late in CNN's morning coverage, author Tom Clancy was asked about the events of the day. At first, I wondered if CNN were truly desperate, asking a fiction writer to comment on the catastrophe, but Clancy gave the best and most cogent analysis of anyone on the air that morning. He mentioned that one of his novels depicted a hijacked jumbo crashing into the Capitol during a joint session of Congress, decapitating the government. Maybe Osama likes Tom Clancy novels.

I ran into this phenomenon of fiction writers being out front myself. One of my novels, written before the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, described a cruise missile with a nuclear ìdirty bombî as its warhead launched by a submarine belonging to a uniting dictator of a pan-Islamic West-hating organization called the United Islamic Front of God. The Islamic dictator was called ìThe Sword of Islamî and carried a dagger in the belt of his robes. Just like our pal Osama later did. The target of the dirty bomb was Washington, D.C.

It was chilling to get an email from a U.S. Army soldier stating that this novel was found in one of Saddam Hussein's palaces. It was apparently well-read and dog-eared.

While none of us would ever want to give terrorists a leg up, it wouldn't hurt to infuse the governmental planners with a little of a fiction author's imagination -- and perhaps his clairvoyance as well.

But were our government officials as clueless as CNN anchors? And if they were, is there meaning in that cluelessness? In the moments after the first plane hit, President Bush was in a classroom in Florida emphasizing reading (Perhaps the government's version of a fluff fashion model segment). After Bush had been informed of the first crash, he went on reading to first graders for another nine minutes. For that kind of reaction, you have to imagine more than just ìa failure of imagination.î You'd need to see that what our government suffered was what we in the nuclear Navy called the ìoh sh**î factor.

The ìoh sh**î factor happens when an emergency arises out of nowhere -- an emergency so whacky and unprecedented that it leaves you stunned and paralyzed. Four hundred feet below the Atlantic, I was running a nuclear reactor drill surrounded by three senior officers, each having a decade-and-a-half of experience in operating nuclear plants. I and another officer had less experience, but were still sharp, and we stood behind a seasoned reactor operator -- the best on the ship. It was a drill, but was still a true ìcasualtyî because the reactor was actually tripped out and we were trying to recover it (if you can do it without sinking, that's a good thing).

Suddenly something happened that no one had ever thought of, drilled, talked about or even theorized, and it caused a reactor runaway reaction. In the cold light of the post-emergency investigation, it was clear that someone should have hit the kill switch and ìscrammedî the reactor. That one button would have made everything safe. No one even thought about it during the two-minute freak accident. And although all the signs were there on the instrument panels to see, we all froze. If the automatic protection circuits hadn't acted as designed, the nuclear power spike and resulting steam explosion -- a ìprompt critical rapid disassemblyî -- would have blown open the hull and we would have coasted all the way to the rocky bottom of the cold Atlantic two miles beneath us.

That feeling of all your thought processes coming to a complete, paralyzed stop is the famous ìoh sh**î factor. It is the reason that we drilled on every catastrophe or crisis we could think of. And if I learned one thing from the Navy, it was that what you sweat goes fine. It's what you don't think of that comes to get you.

This came to mind a month ago when I was watching a comedy movie in a dark theater with my five-year-old daughter. I'd always wondered what I would do if she were to choke, as it was one of my parenting fears. Suddenly she laughed and choked at the same time, and by the dim light of the screen I could see her eyes bug out in panic, and the choking sound stopped. Before a tenth of a second passed I grabbed her, and while running down the aisle steps toward better...

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About Michael DiMercurio

Michael DiMercurio was an honors graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, a National Science Foundation scholar and graduate of MIT in mechanical engineering, a graduate of the Navy Nuclear Training Program, a Navy diver, and a chief nuclear engineer qualified officer and ship's diver on the USS Hammerhead, a Sturgeon-class fast attack nuclear submarine of the Atlantic Fleet.

During the Reagan administration, DiMercurio and the Hammerhead spent over 50 days in trail of Russian nuclear submarines. DiMercurio is the author of 10 bestselling books including Vertical Dive and Emergency Deep.

Visit Michael DiMercurio's web site