Some Perspectives on "The Disaster"
By Prof. David Lorge Parnas
On September 11, 2001, death fell from the skies in Washington D.C., rural Pennsylvania, and New York City. The attacks were so massive, and so sudden, that the victims had no possibility of defending or saving themselves. Many must have died horrible deaths, burned, crushed, asphyxiated and completely unprepared for their fate. The stories of loss and suffering have been heart-wrenching.

Many have been traumatized by this event. Seeing the world's most powerful country successfully attacked, realizing that the world's most powerful armed forces, while capable of retaliation and revenge, are unable to provide an effective self-defence, we feel insecure. Knowing someone who knew a victim makes us realize, in some cases for the first time, that we too are vulnerable.

Most politicians and commentators describe this as a unique event that has changed the world. Sadly, that is not the case. Death has rained from the skies on innocent people before. In our lifetimes it has happened in Shanghai, London, Hamburg, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Yugoslavia, Palestine, and many other places. Despite the spectacular nature of the latest attack, the lives lost, the suffering, and the property damage pale in comparison with many earlier events. Many earlier bombardments continued for weeks, leaving the surviving inhabitants in terror, knowing that the next day would bring more death and destruction.

Unless we are so racist as to believe that North American lives are worth more than other lives, we must remember that 9.11.2001 was not a unique disaster, but one of a long series of disasters. Remembering the other disasters does not diminish the horror of this one. Mourning the earlier dead does not diminish our grief about these. Forgetting our past, however, will inhibit our efforts to improve the future.

This strike was very well planned. Its "surgical" nature, hitting at the heart of U.S. military and commercial complexes, demonstrated the resourcefulness and intelligence of the perpetrators. Given the suicidal nature of the attack, it is conceivable that most or all of those who planned the attack died in it. Some of the hijackers may have believed that it was a "normal" hijacking and did not know, until the last moment, that they were on a suicide mission. There are many who believe that they have reason to hate the U.S. and that many groups may have cooperated to wreak this havoc. It is even possible that forces outside the troubled Middle East recruited participants from that area in order to hide the true source and motivation of the attack. If we remember how clever the planners were, we will be careful not to jump to conclusions based on the evidence that they left behind. Investigators found some names because someone wanted us to find them.

Much of the political commentary has consisted of "crocodile tears" and empty bravado intended to stir up emotions. Many statements confused revenge with defence and retaliation with prevention. Only a few commentators have noted that Americans must try to understand why some people hate them so much that they would sacrifice their lives in this way. Unless they identify the cause of the hatred, and take steps to remove it, efforts to end terrorism will be futile.

Seeing this disaster as merely the latest in a series of disasters that have befallen human beings can teach us an important lesson. We must be willing to live by the rules that we expect others to follow, if we want to live in peace. Nobody will be safe until all are safe.

Prof. David Lorge Parnas is professor of electrical and computer engineering at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario

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