The inept in search of the elusive

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The Independent Online

At around 10 o'clock Eastern Standard Time on the morning of 11 September 2001, George Bush gave Dick Cheney orders to shoot down civilian airliners that had been hijacked by terrorists. The Vice-President passed on the command, unaware that all four aircraft had already crashed, and for a while he was under the impression that two of them had been shot down by the American air force. His instruction did not reach fighter control until 10.30, and the message was so muddled that the lead pilot believed the country was under attack by the Russians. "I'm thinking cruise missile threat from the sea," he said, revealing that he was looking in the wrong direction. "You couldn't see any airplanes, and no one told us anything."

At around 10 o'clock Eastern Standard Time on the morning of 11 September 2001, George Bush gave Dick Cheney orders to shoot down civilian airliners that had been hijacked by terrorists. The Vice-President passed on the command, unaware that all four aircraft had already crashed, and for a while he was under the impression that two of them had been shot down by the American air force. His instruction did not reach fighter control until 10.30, and the message was so muddled that the lead pilot believed the country was under attack by the Russians. "I'm thinking cruise missile threat from the sea," he said, revealing that he was looking in the wrong direction. "You couldn't see any airplanes, and no one told us anything."

Details of the administration's chaotic response emerged last week from the independent commission investigating the hijackings, and they go some way to explain a persistent rumour that the fourth plane, which crashed in Pennsylvania, was shot down. According to the commission, the hijackers' original intention was even more ambitious: 10 aircraft were to be commandeered and some of them flown into nuclear plants and skyscrapers on the West Coast, as well as the CIA and FBI headquarters. Had they succeeded, Bush's orders might have been carried out, creating a very different scenario from the one we remember.

How would Americans have reacted if hundreds of innocent passengers had been killed by the air force that was supposed to protect them? At a time when few people have any idea of the massive scale of "friendly fire" casualties in the Second World War, the idea of a fighter pilot killing his fellow-citizens is deeply repugnant. Nor is the calculation straightforward: if a hijacked plane had been shot down over the middle of Manhattan, one of the most crowded cities on the planet, would the loss of life have been any lower? In the aftermath of 9/11, governments around the world have no doubt considered such terrible dilemmas, and it is not unthinkable that Tony Blair might one day have to order the RAF to scramble over London and shoot down a hi-jacked aircraft.

An hour after the first plane flew into the World Trade Center, the President was telling Cheney: "Sounds like we have a minor war going on here. I heard about the Pentagon. We're at war ... somebody's going to pay." It is a characteristic Bush soundbite, the remark of a slow-witted bystander rather than the firm, measured reaction one might expect from the most powerful man in the world. (I suppose we should be grateful, in retrospect, that he didn't launch a nuclear strike against Russia.) Since then, we have lived in fear of the next attack, while dreadful pictures of atrocities in Bali, Madrid, Casablanca, Baghdad and the Indian sub-continent are etched on our minds. I have friends who refuse to travel on the London Underground, so convinced are they that the city is a terrorist target.

I may be in a minority, but I think this is an over-reaction, a side-effect of Bush's idiotic declaration of a "war on terror". Apart from the objections made at the time - who is the war against and how will we know it's over? - it has elevated the status of a bunch of murderers among people who hate the West. But terrorists resort to spectacular attacks because they do not have the resources to fight a full-scale war - and the casualties, though appalling, are relatively small. About 3,000 people died on 9/11, which is a dreadful loss of life but nothing like the 135,000 American soldiers, many of them in their teens, who died as the Allies advanced towards Germany in 1945. (More than half a million were wounded.)

Thirty-two thousand Americans die each year from wounds inflicted by guns, and I don't know how many thousands are killed on the roads. There has not been another terrorist outrage in the US since 9/11, and most of the casualties of Bush's two unfinished wars are Afghans and Iraqis. It suits the administration to talk up the threat from al-Qa'ida, as it did Saddam Hussein's supposed arsenal of unconventional weapons, but there is a danger of getting the threat out of all proportion. The President was inept on 11 September 2001, and he is still trying to cover his back almost three years later.

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