The Best Anti-Terror Force: Us
Flight 93's Networked Heroes
By J.B. Schramm
Wednesday, June 23, 2004; Page A21
On Sept. 11, 2001, American citizens saved the government, not the other way around.
A first review of the Sept. 11 commission's report indicates that the system failed, but that is wrong. While the U.S. air defense system did fail to halt the attacks, our improvised, high-tech citizen defense "system" was extraordinarily successful.
Confronted by a cruel and diabolical surprise that day, those with formal responsibility for protecting our country from air attack could not defend us. For example, according to the commission's report, all the terrorist aircraft had crashed before Vice President Cheney issued orders for our military to down the planes seized by terrorists. Not only were those orders irrelevant, they were never even delivered to our fighter pilots. This is not surprising given that the command-and-control structure required so many baton handoffs in the 77-minute response window between the crashes of the first and fourth terrorist aircraft.
What is surprising is that an alternative defense system, one with no formal authority or security funding, did succeed, and probably saved our seat of government. The downing of United Flight 93 in Pennsylvania was a heroic feat executed by the plane's passengers. But it was more: the culmination of a strikingly efficient chain of responses by networked Americans.
Requiring less time than it took the White House to gather intelligence and issue an attack order (which was in fact not acted on), American citizens gathered information from national media and relayed that information to citizens aboard the flight, who organized themselves and effectively carried out a counterattack against the terrorists, foiling their plans. Armed with television and cell phones, quick-thinking, courageous citizens who were fed information by loved ones probably saved the White House or Congress from devastation.
The foremost strategic question we need to ask ourselves is not, "How did the government/CIA/FAA fail us?" Rather, we should ask: "How did the networked citizens on the ground and in the sky save us?"
First, we Americans need to see ourselves as our brave fellow citizens on Flight 93 saw themselves, as front-line combatants in this struggle. There is no gated community safe from the threat, and there are no professional, volunteer armed forces that can, alone, fight this enemy. Not only should we aspire to match the great homeland sacrifices of citizens in World War II, we must see ourselves, and prepare ourselves, as the front line in this struggle.
This raises profound questions for all citizens and especially for those vying for leadership in Congress and the presidency. Would universal national service better prepare us for this role? Should citizens be provided with more "intelligence" about terrorist threats? How do you train 280 million Americans as homeland defenders?
From a military perspective, our only effective weapon against the terrorists on Sept. 11 was a connected, smart-thinking citizenry. Educating and equipping critical-thinking, network-savvy citizens will be key to winning this war of infiltration and surprise. Our front-line citizens in the next attack may not be highly networked "frequent fliers."
Second, we need to ensure that the communications infrastructure, including broadcast, Internet and telecommunications, remains robust, modern and accessible.
Finally, we should consider what other social challenges can be addressed by providing an infrastructure for citizens to organize around. The U.S. government's role in enabling a competitive broadcast media and telecommunications industry, not to mention the development of the Internet, made the citizen success on Sept. 11 possible. In commerce, eBay has built an auction block through which individuals have famously self-organized and developed rules to make trading easier. Linux provides a way for people to build and refine computer operating systems. In education, College Summit, the organization I work for, seeks to provide the infrastructure for low-income communities to self-organize, much as middle-class communities do, to get their promising young people into college.
The acts on Sept. 11 not only changed our world, they also provide a lesson for how a free, democratic nation can effectively overcome the forces of fundamentalist terror.
The writer is founder and chief executive of College Summit, a national nonprofit organization that helps low-income students through the process of applying for college admission.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company