Some Notes About Calamity…and Opportunity

Some Notes About Calamity…and Opportunity

By David Brin, 2001

Normally, in novels or nonfiction, I try to work out my thoughts in rational order. Not this time. After events on 9/11/01, they come spinning like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, ravaged by a cyclone.

So here, in rambling segments, are some of my own humble efforts to make sense of the situation. Perhaps others will find a few helpful.

Your insights are welcome. We’re in this together.

-David Brin


We all know that events like last Tuesday get named. How could it not be? We’ll all be asked by our grandchildren “what were you doing on ___ day?”

My initial proposal, till something better comes along, is that September 11, 2001 be know as “nine-one-one”…. or maybe “nine-eleven”… or 9/11.

911….. It’s a call for help. An alert. A cry to get on with the job of helping those who can be helped… and catching the bad guys.


The toll on 9/11 would surely have been far worse — perhaps as high as all American losses in Vietnam — except for one thing…. the magnificent work of engineers who made those towers so strong that they lasted a whole hour, long enough for many thousands of people to get away. Then they collapsed with perfect linear dignity, barely touching their neighbors, sparing Manhattan the feared Domino Effect. Geometrically and structurally amazing.

It’s a testament of skill that should be honored. To our civilization, skill is easily as important as courage, though it’s mentioned far less often.


Perhaps a million people have lost someone within one “degree of separation”. Probably every American lost someone within two degrees. Worse than D-Day and certainly Pearl Harbor, but with a vastly higher index of frustration.

A friend sent me this insight —

“Picture a woman cheering the ‘martyrs’ in the streets of Palestine who’s connected by a relatively short chain to another woman crying in the streets of New York. I don’t claim that showing them their connected path will solve all world problems. But it’s a path that we’ve been unable to explore until now.”

A notion worth pursuing, especially since hardly a village on the globe doesn’t have sons or daughters living in America. Moreover, the terrorists chose the very buildings in America with the highest ratio of foreign companies based therein.

But this kind of thing will work only over the very long term, because levels of rationalization, cultural panic and hatred are too severe right now for many people to let anything humanize their enemies. Also, this kind of research would take the resources of a major news organization… and it calls for posing questions that seem unpleasant to ask of grieving relatives.


Speaking of “humanizing” others…. Harassment of Middle-Easterners in the US has to be squelched quickly. Not only is it wrong and abhorrent to our values, it will be tremendously counter-productive. There are probably other middle-eastern terrorist cells operating in the US. The best way to find them is through willing cooperation by the great majority of law-abiding, non-violent middle-eastern immigrants.

From a purely pragmatic level (and much that’s moral is rooted in long-range pragmatism) malicious harassment will get them to clam up rather than being helpful. President Bush needs to speak out to ensure their safety and to prove this nation is something different – a shared vision that merits loyalty from all.


I hope people will stop using the word “cowardly” to characterize the terrorists’ actions. It feels satisfying in the mouth, but it is simply the wrong word. They were murderous, insane and too stupid to grasp the ultimate consequences that will demolish their own beloved cause… but cowardly is the very last word to describe them.


There are dozens of levels to this. It’d take whole books — and I’m as confused as anybody.

Let’s comment briefly on just a few aspects.

WHY IT HAPPENED-at the security level

A whole lot of talking heads are yelling and bemoaning the “failures of security” that these attacks reveal and calling for draconian clampdowns. (See below.) Flight schedules are crippled, buildings and events locked-down and people stranded far from home.

Certainly some security failures lessons can be learned. For example, we should emulate Israel?s El Al Airlines by locking the cockpit doors and arming pilots. We can talk about technologies of accountability below.

But what strikes me is how WELL our security measures functioned!

Despite years of preparation, determination and ingenuity, the terrorists were apparently only able to smuggle aboard a few knives… and small ones at that. Apparently plastic box-cutters with Xacto tips.

Please think about that.

Plastic-handled razors? How could any security system block such things?

The answer is simple – this level of threat cannot be effectively prevented.

Moreover, trying to do so could harm us far more than the WTC collapse.

Despite the yammering on TV, a lack of security measures did not cause this tragedy.

The failure on 9/11 was almost entirely one of DOCTRINE — a policy on how to deal with hijackers that was taught to pilots, flight attendants and the public for forty years.

Back when hijackers wanted simply to make a political statement, it made sense to teach that passive surrender is the best policy. Better to safeguard passengers than risk some “foolhardy gesture” by grappling with attackers.

It was a policy of maturity and patience that probably saved many lives… and was never understood by terrorists that way. Coming from macho cultures, they saw this policy as cowardly and decadent. (See below.)

Now, after more people may have died in a single day of kamikaze dives than in all U.S. aviation accidents combined, it’s clear the old doctrine was obsolete. In fact, it’s already changed.

What’s amazing is that it changed within an hour of the first plane’s takeover, when passengers aboard the fourth plane heard about the WTC attacks on their cell phones. (Note a relation to the “911” theme…) Within minutes, one of them called his wife to tell her… “… we’re all going to die anyway. Three of us are going up there to try and do something.”

Result number one: A crashed plane with everybody dead. The very thing the old doctrine of responsible-passivity was designed to prevent.

Result number two: Thousands of lives saved in the Capitol or wherever the terrorists planned to go next with a kamikaze plunge.

The doctrinal transformation took place swiftly and decisively, without deliberation by any sober government agencies or sage committees. Three average men changed it, almost immediately upon hearing the news via their independent “intelligence network”… cell phones. They acted as soldiers. As heroes, without waiting for permission from any authority.

It’s called initiative, a civic virtue, part of our national character that doesn?t get enough attention. Not from our leaders and certainly not from our enemies.

For three years I’ve been giving “futurist” speeches, some to Pentagon groups, about the need to include common citizens in our defensive networks. In an afterward below I?ll expand a bit more on this.

But the over-arching point was made more eloquently by those three heroes.

The new doctrine of vigorous resistance is a simple matter of calculating costs and benefits… a calculation that heroes have always made, whether diving into a burning building to save kids or throwing themselves onto grenades to save their buddies.

What the hierarchical powers-that-be in our culture have to remember is that all tribes considered their adult members to be potential heroes. Our grandparents knew this. It’s time to go back to that attitude – with some maturity and thoughtful care.

But it will be excruciatingly hard for officials to back off from the standard, patronizing “let us handle this” attitude.

Again, let’s stop all this frantic yowling about “lapses in security”. Security worked pretty well. We just have to be a little less responsible. A little more brave.

WHY IT HAPPENED-at the psychological level

People tend to dismiss the psychology behind terror events like 9/11 under pabulums like “religious fanaticism.” While such terms may be true, they are unenlightening. For one thing, anyone who has experienced combat will tell you that martyrs don’t happen because a guy wants to BE a hero or martyr. When a man martyrs himself extravagantly, it’s often because he desperately wants people to SEE him as one. There’s a crucial difference.

At another level, how can people rationalize killing? They begin by demonizing their enemies. And yes, we’ve done it too, with caricatures of Japanese during WWII, for instance. In the case of the Nazis, “demon” turned out to be exactly the right word.

The rhetoric used to demonize Americans often portrays us as a “soft and decadent” people who can be frightened and coerced. Enemies such as Hitler and Stalin and Saddam repeated this reassuring mantra over and over, even though it has been disproved repeatedly, and will be disproved across the Twenty-first Century.

We must understand the underlying reason why adversaries strive so hard to convince themselves of this. Because otherwise they would have to accept that our incredible success as a civilization arose from virtues. (e.g. ingenuity, hard-work, education, freedom, cooperation, initiative and a better design for a happy society.)

Naturally, this is intolerable for them to contemplate. When faced with our obvious wealth and success, they must rationalize that it came about as a result of a tradeoff — a Faustian bargain — that we bought sybarite comforts at cost of our strength, our “manhood”, our grit, or our very souls.

(Many of our own pundits collaborate with this image by characterizing their fellow citizens in similar ways.)

And in all cases, you’ll find a flip side. These delusional adversaries tell themselves that they are hardy, spiritually-deep beings, destined to overcome brittle degenerates.

This tendency will never go away. It feels too good for our adversaries ever to give it up. All we can do is prove it wrong again and again, as our fathers and grandfathers did

WHY IT HAPPENED-at the level of nationalism

The reasons expressed by the actors themselves should be given some credence. They consider themselves to be at war with an inimical way of life and an occupying power (Israel) they see destined to be crushed, the way the Crusader Kingdoms were, a thousand years ago.

The twists and turns and rationalizations professed by all sides in the Middle East merit study and some respect. But the intractable problem stymieing efforts toward negotiated peace surely lies at a lower level — in widely different assumptions about what “peace” and “negotiation” mean. So long as the meanings expressed in English, for Western consumption, are completely different than the meanings expressed in dialect back home, there seems to be little basis for understanding or trust.

It’s hard to negotiate when people believe their victories are the will of God and their defeats are meaningless, temporary setbacks, to be endured until the next time. In other words, the war will ultimately be won or lost at the level of memes – a long, hard struggle between basic assumptions that cannot coexist.

I won’t shed any more light on this core issue in a ramble like this one. Let’s go back to nibbling around the edges.

WHY IT HAPPENED-at the geopolitical level

Very few Americans ever speak the word “Empire”. But our enemies (and many friends) use it all the time to describe the United States of America. Even those who like us nevertheless accuse us of arrogance and trying to impose our will on the world.

Let’s admit it; historically-speaking, Pax Americana certainly does fill the role that Pax Romana and Pax Britannica had during their heydays. When something big happens that we consider dangerous, we tend to act — in concert with allies or unilaterally — to shift the world situation back toward an equilibrium that we like. It fits the definition of “empire”, even if we don’t like the word.

Imperiums can be brutal and despicable – (and the US did some fairly typical empire building, a while back!) On the other hand they do provide structure for trade and growth and some kind of law. Look across human history. The only periods when average people could live their lives with some degree of predictability, law and safety from capricious disruption from pillaging hordes, happened when a strong imperial power was in place. Today, literally billions see their livelihoods rising rapidly because of the trade networks that are protected in that way.

Ah, but is it a GOOD thing?

First – the mere fact that we can ask such a question shows that things have changed for the better. We live in a time and context when it’s possible to imagine an age without empires. (Grist for many science fiction tales.) So much so that we are unaccustomed to using the word in everyday speech.

Indeed, the USA is the first imperial power that ever declared its official aim would be an end to empires. (Starting long before Woodrow Wilson went to Versailles.) It’s the first to succor defeated enemies, fostering the ascent of rivals like the EU and Japan, often giving generous trade advantages to poor nations instead of ravaging them with mercantilist tariffs. The only empire whose culture preached anti-authority propaganda in all its films, dramas and other art forms. The one who linguistically hates the word “empire” and its trappings, even while (admittedly) falling all-too often for the temptations of exerting imperial power. (A temptation that others would quickly abuse if they had the chance.)

We all need to recognize that it’s natural and human to aim jealous wrath toward the beast on top, especially when it’s not your tribe or nation that gets pride of place. Rome and Britain could blithely ignore the bitter complaints aimed at them by satrapies and outsiders. The U.S. gets more brickbats precisely because we actually listen… now and then. Indeed, if we’re to live up to our ideals, we should listen more.

Likewise, both terrorists and anti-globalization demonstrators, despite many moral differences, share in common a deep vagueness when asked what it is they would replace Pax Americana with. Ironically, most Americans would be interested in seeing a good plan for improved international institutions and law, so long as those institutions pass a long list of skeptical criteria for accountability, fairness and don’t overcompensate in order to punish the first empire that fostered a rule of law.

We need to understand the political impulse that makes us a natural target of resentment – by reasonable people, not just terrorists – and respond by trying to listen and act better. Better and smarter.

Yet, only fools deny that Pax Americana has been better than any of the likely alternatives. Woe unto all of us if it’s dismantled before something rational and effective and accountable and fair is set up to replace it.


Perpetrators must be punished. More important, their mind-set and power to act must be neutralized. These aren’t necessarily the same thing.

Options are many, and nearly all of them are unsatisfying. What the recent death toll has done is unleash our forces from timidity over moderate casualties, so long as results are decisive and effective. Some possibilities to discuss (and again, I’m not advocating):

Pinprick missile strikes. Automatically perceived as pathetic.

Break up Iraq.


  • It’s easily the most accessible enemy state. We own the airspace and have well-characterized the opposition. The terrain is favorable.(Unlike horrible Afghanistan.) And it isn’t even necessary to go to Baghdad.
  • Just act in concert with local populations to break off Kurdish and Shiite states, the latter being a potential olive-branch to Iran. (Invite Khatami to participate?) These can then be given lavish foreign aid and UN seats with embarrassing haste. Even if Saddam remained rooted in Baghdad, the rump Iraq would be oil-poor and impotent.
  • Added advantage, there is a high likelihood (but no certainty) that CNN coverage afterward will show jubilant citizens kissing our soldiers, welcoming them as liberators. This would help us keep the moral high ground from shifting to the “victims” of our revenge strike


  • Landing the 82nd Airborne is always risky. The Republican Guard would probably fold in minutes or retreat to Sunni areas, but people who predicted such things in the past have sometimes been catastrophically wrong.
  • Also, it might require fabricating evidence linking Saddam to the crime. And Turkey would have to be persuaded the Kurdish protectorate-state is a good thing… also nontrivial.

Let Afghanistan starve.


  • Trivial to do. Just stop trying desperately to push UN wheat at them. They’re already doing it themselves. Let the people of the country choose to eliminate Taliban on their own.


  • It’s immoral and you have no proof it will work. The ones in charge will eat no matter what. Moreover, it doesn’t look active enough to satisfy the political needs of our leadership for firm, violent response. If this is done, truly massive food drops should be sent to non-Taliban areas that people can walk to, voting with their feet

Put out huge rewards.

  • See elsewhere recommendations for a non-governmental “Henchman’s Fund” or annual “Henchman’s Prize”. A general approach would be more useful than simply putting a big price on Bin Laden’s head. For more on this, see: my Future Philanthropy articles.
  • Take cremated victim ashes and spread them over Afghanistan. Just a sampling would make people think… I’m breathing in the dust of the real martyrs… Good world theater, too.
  • Folks like Richard Shelby advocate “taking the gloves off” in the intelligence business and hiring assassins and folks with serious human rights violations in the past and other unsavories. But isn?t that exactly what we did 20 years ago in Afghanistan, when we helped get Osama bin Laden started, allying ourselves with anybody in order to kill Russians in Afghanistan. Who will it be 20 years from now? I’m not saying that we have to be squeaky clean, but we DO have to learn from mistakes. It’s not a sin to think decades.

Suggestion numero uno — follow the money…. more on this below.

  • Enough. I know some of the skilled and imaginative people who are probably coming up with plans right now. I won’t try to second guess them… well, no more than any citizen and armchair general.
  • But I do hope we keep learning as we go. Lessons from Tonkin Gulf and Bay of Pigs… from ending the Gulf War at a lovely round 100 hours, instead of the 150 or so that would have actually achieved something… and from the need to think of this as a LONG war.
  • The real battle will be fought at the level of cultural assumptions and memes. Revenge, while satisfying and maybe even necessary, is ultimately for suckers.


I’m no expert in military affairs. But I do know a thing or two about secrecy. And one kind of secrecy enhances the power of men to do evil in the world. Money.

It may finally be time to put real ‘transparency’ pressure on the international financial system to stop the ancient art of banking secrecy. In the long run, this will hamper villains more than any number of bombs and airport scanners. Elites will fight this, as they always have. We should respond by making it clear that “harboring terrorists” will be interpreted to include those who harbor their working funds


Some have been proclaiming fear that this episode may lead to panic and a drive to curb our civil liberties. I have a couple of chapters about this very problem in The Transparent Society, discussing the false tradeoff between security and freedom that so many see as unavoidable.

Let’s begin by offering the latest screed by that inimitable net Jacobin, John Perry Barlow…. one of the most American human beings I ever met, in every positive & negative sense of the word. What he says below, with typical eloquence. Amid all the panicky cries for draconian new security measures, Barlow?s warning must be heard & heeded… and then put on the shelf as 90% wrong.

Because it IS wrong, thank God. The situation he portrays is almost wholly detached from reality, a perception arising from his own marvelously vivid romanticism.

As most of you know, I believe that the United States has gradually, subtly, invisibly to most of us, become a police state over the last 30 years. This morning’s events are roughly equivalent to the Reichstag fire that provided the social opportunity for the Nazi take-over of Germany.

I am *not* suggesting that, like the Nazis, the authoritarian forces in America actually had a direct role in perpetrating this mind-blistering tragedy. (Though their indirect role deserves a much longer discussion.)

Nevertheless, nothing could serve those who believe that American “safety” is more important than American liberty better than something like this. Control freaks will dine on this day for the rest of our lives.

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.
-John Perry Barlow’s Commentary on 9/11/1 as a “Reichstag” pretext for Big Brother

Wasn’t that grand writing? Thomas Paine lives on.

Note the underlying theme that Barlow shares with his foes… propounding that everything has happened “invisibly to most of us”… the same old contempt for the masses that so many bright people seem driven to foster, for their own sense of self-worth. It feels so good to be one of the few who can see The Truth. It has roots quite similar to the “soft & decadent” rationalization maintained by the terrorists… a need to feel special, superior and in-the-know

“Panic” is often just in the minds of those who expect it, and possibly relish it, especially those who smugly consider themselves superior to “the masses.” Security mavens who demand extreme “measures” and those who loudly denounce them. (Note: I agree with Barlow more than I agree with the security mavens!)

My response to John Perry is to point out all the cameras and cell phones… a gazillion of them, in private hands… that documented everything on 9/11 far more accurately and with quicker response times than CNN or the government or all the official or aristocratic agencies combined. The powers of vision and information are expanding exponentially into the hands of common people, far faster than they are being acquired by government or industry, the very same people who Barlow calls blind sheep.

I speak elsewhere about the potency of transparency, of accountability in the hands of average citizens. The contempt of elitists will always blind them to this, even when heroes prove it time and again.

Still, I’m helping circulate Barlow’s warning because it COULD come true someday. Maybe even soon. Some (not all) of our leaders make it quite imaginable. Let’s hope they surprise us in good ways.

In the long run, though, it will be people who stop terrorists and thugs — and all would-be tyrants. In this, folks will be aided by government, not the other way around.

It had better happen that way, or there’s no hope at all.

(For more on this, see The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Freedom and Privacy? Perseus Books)


Beyond philosophizing grandly about “doctrine”, here are just a few pragmatic notions offered in the last few days by correspondents such as Stefan Jones & Joe Carroll —
bullet Why no cameras in planes, yet? Video compression should allow 3-4 cameras worth of footage to be recorded without too much trouble. Assuage privacy concerns by locking the files and requiring a court order for access.

  • The basics. Again, emulate El Al. Lock the cockpits, arm the pilots, and get back in the air as soon as possible.
  • Technologies to thwart this in future? A switch that slaves the autopilot to ground control for one hour?
  • A light that goes off in the cabin encouraging everybody to turn ON all their “electronic devices,” all at once?
  • More seriously, auto dialers that call every possible cell phone to alert people in back that something’s wrong? (This might be good everywhere, the modern equivalent of the town crier, or the medieval “hue&cry”…
  • Canned response after large deviation from flight plan:
    • Automatic mayday
    • Broadcast of audio and flight data and maybe compressed images.
    • Possible speed and altitude limits after deviations (false positive is an issue).
    • Allow crew to trigger irreversible dump of most fuel to limit the airplane range and explosive yield. (You would not want this on over-water flights.)
    • Release crews from liability for “jinking” the airplane the second somebody tries to breach the cockpit door. Oscillating between 0 and 2 gee would handicap most folks who are out of their seats, without endangering the plane or anyone else except those who are not seat belted.
  • Consider some crackpot notions like the one offered recently by Richard Dawkins, the famed evolutionary biologist. His idea is to promise to find the brains of suicide terrorists and freeze them with a vow of sciencefictionally finding some way to revive them in software. Dawkins says that of course this is laughable for a myriad reasons. But his aim is to say something remotely plausible that would threaten the one thing the terrorists want – to awaken in Paradise with a martyr’s requisite 72 virgins at beck and call. All it’d take is a splashy enough announcement, since many of these people will believe anything of US technology. Of course this is absurd. But it’s good to be a member of a civilization with such imaginative minds in it! And maybe some billionaire like George Soros, with a flair for the absurd, could get away with offering a prize to “find the brains, even a few pieces will do!” Heh.
  • More seriously (much more) — prepare for the next step. e.g. now that suicide is part of the standard terror system, it is no longer enough to make sure that every passenger who checked luggage gets on the plane. I consider this to be the next big problem. We should be letting people fly… but maybe not their bags… The very first place to do this should be Reagan National, in the heart of DC. Briefcase-size carry-ons only. Most people would adapt quickly. Or else – turn it into Reagan National Balloon-Port.

Enough rambling. None of these puzzle pieces fit together well, and that should be no surprise. Time is out of joint, the Earth unstable beneath our feet.

So? It was like that for our ancestors, far more than it ever is for us, even this week. And they still managed to leave us richer, smarter, mightier, more knowing, more tolerant and adaptable than any other civilization. With such gifts come obligations, to make all sacrifices worthwhile.

This country is big enough to shrug off a hundred bites like those deluded zealots took out of us on 911. Therefore, our reaction should NOT be only about revenge or punishment, delicious as it certainly will feel, for a while.

Because no punishment will chasten or deter or teach a lesson to people who can rationalize such acts.

Punishment will be meaningless unless we also study how to win the long-term war over the deep assumptions people carry inside – the memes that make tolerance not only possible but a power in daily life.

As a notorious optimist, I feel the glass is already past half-full. It’s going to be tough finding ways to top it off. But that is our obligation.

Because we’re the ones who are capable of learning.

We had better be.



Above I spoke of changing the specific doctrine forbidding resistance to hijackers. Now let me speak more generally. For several years, a few people have been suggesting that our leaders need to re evaluate the PUBLIC’s role in dealing with modern problems.

When it comes to intelligence, there are simple measures that could help unleash a million skilled and voracious eyes into the world, poking their gaze into far more places than the NSA or CIA could ever manage. (Chaotically and inconveniently, true enough. But there are advantages to that, as well.)

  • re: the military, I believe the whole concept of ?reserves? should be re-evaluated, with vision toward enhancing and utilizing the vast levels of private expertise that have been burgeoning in an “age of amateurs”, shortening the time that it would take to ‘ramp up’ civilization’s ability to help the thin gray line during a crisis. Our parents volunteered by the millions after Pearl harbor, avenging the professionals who sacrificed themselves, buying time on Bataan. Yet today’s military professionals make almost no allowance for such a possibility in the future, rationalizing that it takes 2 years just to prepare a volunteer to begin specialized combat training. With all due respect, this rationalization is bogus. There are several innovative approaches, akin to the Civil Aeronautics Clubs of the late 1930s, that could considerably shorten ramp times. The matter merits some investigation.
  • re: fighting terrorism, my point has been that aversion to casualties is – and always has been – pushed by politicians, not common folk. Increased formal security is not the answer. The answer is better doctrine.

Again, those planes were filled with adult males who could overcome fanatics armed with knives. They had been indoctrinated to be passive, but those men aboard the fourth flight proved that it’s easy and reasonable to ask citizens to be heroes. In fact, the call would stir our hearts and make us feel brave. If done carefully and responsibly, it would make us feel like men and women… adults with a role to play in defending our tribe.