A $30 billion a year intelligence system had failed abysmally. The nation's $12.8 billion a year domestic security and counter-intelligence agencies had failed as badly. Between 3,000 to 5,000 people had already died, or were just about to die, in the two doomed towers of the World Trade Center in New York City after two hijacked airliners had been crashed into them. A third hijacked airliner had crashed into the Pentagon.
A fourth airliner was hijacked too. Many U.S. counter-intelligence officers are convinced its intended target was the United States Capitol. Senators Rick Santorum and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania have gone on the record as saying this is their conviction too. Thousands more people would have been killed if that had indeed been the case.
But Flight 93 from Newark, New Jersey to San Francisco took no innocent lives on the ground with it. That was because a group of exceptionally brave passengers, apparently led by Jeremy Glick and Thomas Burnett among others, stormed the hijackers in the doomed plane's cockpit. They may even, on some interpretations of the fragmentary evidence available, have largely succeeded in overcoming and killing most of the hijackers before the plane spun out of control in the struggle and crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside outside Pittsburgh.
The passengers who stormed the hijackers and saved probably thousands of lives were emblematic of the unconventional diversity of modern America. One was of Jewish ethnic origin. Another was a prominent gay rights activist. Most of them came from the upwardly mobile middle class professional group often called yuppie. They were not supposed to be capable of selfless, literally suicidal, or kamikaze bravery to save their fellow Americans. But on the spur of the moment, with absolutely no spiritual, military or public service training to prepare them for the crucial moment, they proved capable of exactly that.
A handful of supposedly soft, supposedly decadent, supposedly pampered middle class American civilians foiled a literally diabolical terrorist plot that was probably intended to slaughter hundreds of America's leaders and thousands of their staffs in the heart of the national government. And they did it with -- butter knives and cell phones.
It was thanks to their cell phones with which they contacted loved ones to tell them about the hijacking that they learned these hijackers were far different from the "cozy" American airliner hijackers of the 1970s. People on the other end of the radio connection were able to tell them about the destruction of the Twin Towers in Manhattan. They knew then that they were doomed anyway, and had nothing left to lose.
And it was the plastic butter knives that in the Flight 93's galley that then provided them with the only weapons they could arm themselves with
Those pampered sons of the richest superpower in human history thus stormed into battle far less well equipped than the Minutemen who defied and withstood the British Army at Concord, Massachusetts. They fought with less weaponry and in a more vulnerable, hostile environment, than any of George Washington's Revolutionary Army at Trenton, Brooklyn Heights or Monmouth. And they knew they were going to die with a certainty far beyond that of the thousands of young Union soldiers who pinned their names and home addresses on their backs before marching out to be slaughtered in the most nightmarish later battles of the U.S. Civil War.
Yet they won, and they won with the simplest and most obvious of weapons from the science fiction future-present and the dim-distant past.
It was the ubiquitous cell phones that provided such crucial intelligence and made possible such a lightning-fast, virtually instantaneous adaptation to the terrible demands of the new age of mega-terror. They were never planned or intended as crucial weapons of national defense or homeland security. But on the morning of Sept. 11, they proved more crucial than all the communications capabilities of the United States armed forces and the Department of Defense.
And it was the humble butter knives that played the role of last defense and last resort for the spontaneously organized citizens' militia that gathered together to plan its heroic last stand to defend the capital to the United States of America. The men of 1776 would have been horrified had they, even then, been forced to fall back on such primitive and ineffective weapons. Yet embattled civilians have instinctively turned to such humble home eating utensils to defend hearth and home since the Stone Age.
The combination of popular new high tech and overlooked old tech in the hands of ordinary people, learning fast, may prefigure and prophetically symbolize the future of U.S. national defense in the coming years. It may prove far more relevant than all the air-borne lasers and Alaska-based anti-ballistic interceptors so beloved of President Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and their dreamers -- usually, politely, called "visionaries" -- in the White House and the Pentagon.
The Federal law enforcement authorities failed to prevent, anticipate, or warn against the catastrophe of Sept. 11. In the past month, they have proven unable to even publicly identify the perpetrators or masterminds of the "second wave" of anthrax-letters that have convulsed the U.S. postal system and thrown fear and confusion into many departments of the Federal Government. Unless they do a lot better than that, the president and his administration will be unable to maintain the high levels of public confidence and trust that the American people have unhesitatingly given them since the national emergency began.
It is entirely possible the crisis will get far worse. It is entirely possible that the federal law enforcement agencies will fail to significantly improve on their extremely poor performance so far. And it is even, fearfully, possible that the terrorists will succeed in pulling off more successful attacks to kill many more innocent Americans.
But even if those dire possibilities come to pass, the drama of Flight 93 serves warning to the enemies of the United States and enduring hope to its people. It teaches that the last, best hope of the American people in defending their precious liberties and very survival may reside in a well-organized citizens' militia, just as the Founding Fathers said. And it teaches that a people who can transform cell phones and butter knives into lethal weapons to defend their home land has limitless resources of initiative and enterprise, defiance and courage, that its enemies can never imagine.