"United 93": a Review

FAA: “Hi. Boston Center TMU [Traffic Management Unit], we have a problem here. We have a hijacked aircraft headed towards New York, and we needsomeone to scramble some F-16s or something up there, help us out.

NEADS: Is this real-world or exercise?

FAA: No, this is not an exercise, not a test.” (9/11 Commission Report, pg. 20)

Yes, no exercise or test for the almost 3,000 people who died on 9/11/01! Scrambling F-16s doesn’t sound like much of a request, given that the taxpayers shell out over $600 billion for “defense” (counting Iraq, Afghanistan and intelligence).

But military ground commanders could not communicate with those who send jets “scrambling.” Indeed, NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) received notice of American 11’s hijacking 9 minutes before it struck the World Trade Center’s north tower.

Minutes later, millions around the world would watch United 175 hit New York’s second WTC tower. The President – enthralled in the aftermath of his literary ecstasy, My Pet Goat, which he read to Florida schoolchildren – remained unreachable; the Vice President, desperately seeking shelter.

The Air Force, occupied with maneuvers, finally freed two unarmed F-15s. But they could neither locate nor shoot down the other two purloined aircraft, one of which hit the Pentagon. Subsequently, two other armed jets flew in the wrong direction. American 77, the third plane, hit the Pentagon. A fourth, United 93, the subject of a new movie, crashed in rural Pennsylvania, killing all 37 aboard.

A docu-drama based on available facts, “United 93” shows an expensive, bloated military establishment, lacking the most minimal capability of responding to security needs. Are you listening, Senator Evan Bayh (D-IN)? He urged Democrats to defeat Republicans “on their own ground” by showing they were tougher than Bush on security issues. (Washington Post, May 9) Instead, we suggest they see the film, which should convince rational people to demand a forceful reduction of the “defense” budget.

The 9/11 Commission Report and previously published stories also indicated that the communication-challenged “intelligence community” failed to coordinate and then interpret intelligence that could have prevented the 9/11 attacks.

In mid 2006, Americans should feel less safe than they did five years ago. The dead and wounded multiply in “liberated” Iraq and Afghanistan. Christopher D. Baker, a man with past criminal convictions, “won” for his Shirlington Limousine and Transportation Inc., a $25 million contract with the Department of Homeland Security to provide expensive limousines to senior officials. “Civil servants” used the limos to go to hooker appointments and elite poker games. The May 7 New York Times reported that FBI agents have interviewed Shirlington employees who drove “prostitutes to hotel poker parties” attended by former California Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham and other Republican notables.

Thus, yet another shocking scandal characterizes the “security anxiety age,” where TSA airport screeners at checkpoints play musical chairs with plastic trays filled with shoes, cell phones and laptops. Despite routine “wanding” of suspicious passengers, Government Accountability Office investigators, who conducted tests at 21 airports between October 2005 and January 2006, passed through airport “security” with bomb-making materials in tow. (MSNBC, March 17, 2006)

Democrats fear that if they challenge Bush’s vacuous war on terrorism, he might label them “weak.” Meanwhile, Super Spender Bush reveals himself as President Incompetent, unable to direct the evacuation of people from New Orleans or help them find refuge after Hurricane Katrina destroyed their homes. His ineptitude in Iraq and Afghanistan costs taxpayers nearly $10 billion a month. (Washington Post, April 20, 2006) His Administration’s plan for a predicted bird flu pandemic: throw the problem to the bankrupt local authorities.

In light of Bush disasters, why would Americans fear to face a movie — a much-needed reality check? “United 93” transcends predictable Hollywood recreations of doomed flights. It shows tragedy arising from banality; how high-tech “security” evaporates, literally, from the radar screen when confronted by everyday reality ­ hijackers flying jumbo jets below the radar.

Director Paul Greengrass (“Bloody Sunday,” “The Bourne Supremacy”) dissects the impenetrable façade of security lingo by focusing on everyday behavior: people involved in all aspects of the tragic event, those on the ground and on board the planes.

The opening scene shows four hijackers played by Khalid Abdalla, Lewis Alsamari, Omar Berdouni and Jamie Harding reciting morning prayers in a hotel room. They bow and invoke God, hardly stereotyped terrorists; rather, fervent men completing routine ritual. Then, one decrees: “It’s time.”

Travelers at Newark airport have no inclination that 9/11/01 will become an unforgettable day. They maneuver through airport security, chat on cell phones and read newspapers as they wait for United 93 to depart. The benign-looking hijackers sit unnoticed in the same waiting lounge.

In FAA headquarters and a military control center, the scenario unfolds. 46 minutes after take off, four men take over the airline. The 9/11 Commission report says that one hijacker announced: “Ladies and Gentlemen: Here the captain, please sit down keep remaining sitting. We have a bomb on board. So sit.” (pg. 12)

Rapid cuts juxtapose shock and confusion at FAA’s control center in Herndon, Virginia (Ben Sliney plays himself as operations manager) and at NEADS in Rome, New York. The scenes reveal serious communication problems. Those who must act on the hijackings cannot reach commanders who provide ROE (Rules of Engagement) for shooting down passenger planes that could hit other buildings. Military officials, in turn, couldn’t reach Bush or Cheney for orders. Instead, a bureaucratic morass encases those trying to respond to planes crashing populated buildings.

The film doesn’t show Bush continuing to read My Pet Goat after the second plane hit the WTC. But, we do see FAA flight controllers watching CNN to get late news. Indeed, archival footage of the flaming twin towers reveals the air traffic controllers’ shock. “Jesus Christ,” one mutters. “Holy shit,” says another, “we haven’t had a hijacked plane in over 30 years.” This recorded material establishes the dramatic context for unfolding the hijacking story. Once the hijackers seized United 93, flight attendants and passengers surreptitiously phoned friends and relatives and discovered that other hijacked craft had hit the WTC.

The film’s actors don’t seem to act. The “bad guys” who prayed and slipped box cutters into their belts look effortlessly determined, not cocky and self-assured. Later, one sneaks into the airplane bathroom and assembles an ersatz bomb.

They murder the pilots and one flight attendant, but Greengrass doesn’t spatter the screen with blood. Instead, he presents driven men overcoming fear through faith that God will reward their actions.

Several stunned passengers gradually recover enough wit to plan to retake the plane. As the 9/11 Report mentions, one of the passengers ended a phone call with a loved one by saying, “Everyone’s running up to first class. I got to go. Bye.” (p. 13)

These individuals are not Bruce Willis or Tom Cruise characters who risk their lives to prevent 93 from hitting its Washington target and thus save their country; rather, these passengers revolted because they realized that retaking and landing the plane had become their chance to survive and see their families. They provided the United States with its only resistance to the hijacking of four airplanes ­ three of which did immense damage.
The film contrasts their expressions of hope with other passengers’ unwillingness to accept reality. One insists: “We can negotiate with them.”

Ultimately, “United 93” illustrates how a high-tech military could not defend the country. So, why waste hundreds of billions of dollars on “security” that offers no security against primitively armed individuals ­ not nations?

The February 6, 2006 DOD Quadrennial Defense Review Report purportedly responds to the defects shown in the reenactments in “United 93.” “To strengthen forces to defeat terrorist networks, the Department will increase Special Operations Forces by 15% and the number of Special Forces Battalions by one-third. U.S. Special Operations Command (U.S. SOCOM) will establish the Marine Corps Special Operations Command. The Air Force will establish an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron under U.S. SOCOMThe Department will also expand Psychological Operations and Civil Affairs units by 3,700 personnel, a 33% increase.” (pg. 5)

These recommendations will not deter attacks against giant shopping malls, railroad stations or crowded office buildings. Defense against terrorism has little to do with military hardware or high technology. With all the NSA monitoring of phones and CIA’s signal intelligence operations, no Bush administration official recognized the imminence of the 9/11 attack. Nor did high-tech weapons and Special Forces prove capable of winning previous engagements in Korea or Vietnam; nor tame Afghanistan or Iraq.

Rather than professing their ability to do a “better job” than the Republicans on the “war on terror,” the Democrats must dare to call for the dismantling of the real emperor ­ the military-scientific-industrial complex — that has wasted our fortunes and given so little in return.

Saul Landau is an Institute for Policy Studies Fellow.

Farrah Hassen is a Seymour Melman fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. She can be reached at fhuisclos1944@aol.com