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Technology and Terrorism

September 10, 2002

A public radio commentary

We can draw many lessons from the World Trade Center attack of September 11th, but one thing it clearly reveals is the fragility of the incredible, nearly invisible, web of technology that surrounds us.

The attack severed the web of airplanes, antennas, and cables that connect our world. Packages stopped moving, people stayed put, and telephones were silenced. We've learned by its absence how this technological mesh makes our lives easier, but paradoxically we now see that it makes terrorism easier also.

At first the attacks seem very low tech. We expected a rogue nation to lob a crude nuclear bomb, instead we got a relic from World War Two: A kamikaze driving a jet. But make no mistake about it, our high tech web enabled every aspect of the attack on the World Trade Centers. Their weapon, of course, was a technologically sophisticated jetliner, but the enabling goes even deeper.

As an example, consider the central role of the computer in training the pilots. It isn't an easy thing to fly a jet into a building. So, the terrorist practiced on the computer flight simulators used today to train commercial pilots. These machines duplicate the cockpit of a jetliner. So exact are these simulations that often a pilot's first flight in a real, live jet is with paying passengers. They allow a pilot to mimic taking off, flying and landing a jumbo jet. Pilots can practice navigating around urban areas because the simulators reproduce the topography of every major city in the world. But the simulators also let two terrorist pilots practice, again and again, crashing into the World Trade Centers. All without the necessity of owning a jet.

The lesson from this is not the evil of technology. The attack reveals the truth of the aphorism "technology is neither good, nor bad; nor is it neutral." It depends on the human at the controls. But the attack should caution us from looking for some quick technological fix to the problems of terrorism.

We want some ultra-sensitive metal detector that will unmask any weapon, or some new x-ray machine that exposes all dangers. Yet, the only lasting solution will be a human one: At the basest level an alert and thinking person at an airport, and at its deepest, agreement and understanding among peoples.

Copyright 2002 William S. Hammack Enterprises