Editing the Truth: America's response on 9/11

Saturday, September 10, 2011

In life, the truth is often edited.

This starts when we’re relatively young. It’s blaming your sister for eating the last Oreo in the cookie jar. It’s taking credit for cutting the grass, when you actually paid your younger cousin to do it for you. Editing the truth in these scenarios is done, for lack of a better term, to avoid getting in trouble and/or looking bad.

This weekend, as we close another week, our thoughts turn to those who’s lives were forever changed by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  

We know quite a bit about that day. Most of us know exactly where we were. We know that 19 al Qaeda connected terrorists hijacked four Los Angeles-bound aircraft. We know two of them were deliberately flown into the World Trade Center. We know another was flown into the Pentagon, and another into a farmer’s field in Pennsylvania. We know that over 2900 lives were tragically lost. 

What we don’t know, even 10 years after the fact, is exactly how the United States government responded to the terrorist threat that morning --specifically, its decision to shoot down flight United 93, had it not crashed in Pennsylvania.

United 93's crash site. 

To be blunt, the truth regarding that decision has been edited to such an extent that it’s difficult to tell fact from fiction.

The decision was just one of many highlighted in Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan’s The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden. While it’s almost 600-pages long, it’s paced well, and reads like an informative thriller. I finished it in 5 days. The facts below are taken from the book.


The official story, based on President George W. Bush’s memoir Decision Points, and quotes from Vice President Dick Cheney and Deputy Defense Secretary Alan Wolfowitz, is that the President issued an order to shoot down United 93 had it continued its trajectory toward Washington, D.C. airspace.

However, according to the 9/11 Commission, and other eyewitness accounts, including Cheney’s wife, Lynne (who kept a detailed diary of every that was said that morning), President Bush wasn’t as steadfast as he'd like history to believe he was. 

At the time of the attacks, Bush was infamously reading to a group of school children in Sarasota, Florida. Cheney, unable to reach the President because of communication errors, and because of the President's delayed reaction (he remained in the classroom for another seven minutes after being notified the second tower had been hit), allegedly ordered the flight shot down himself. 

Upon reaching the President by phone, Cheney, according to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, asked him, in so many words, if he was okay with shooting down United 93, to which he responded, “you bet.”

This flies in the face of the chain of command, which is punishable by law. (Cheney, as Vice President, was not within the chain of command to enact such an order. It would have had to come directly from the President himself, as counseled by the Secretary of Defense.)

Then, in interviews years later, some clever truth editing.

Cheney, Wolfowitz, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, all claim that the President did indeed make the order on his own accord, and then properly passed it down the chain of command. Bush's 2010 memoir corroborates this account. The President confirms that he did indeed contact the Vice President, and not the other way around, about shooting down the wayward aircraft. 

Confused yet? Maybe. Have Americans been misled about the government's response on 9/11? Yes.

Lying is making something up. Bush would be lying if he said the decision was made, if really the decision hadn't been made. (The decision was made, however, according to the Air Force, fighter jets wouldn't have had time to intercept the wayward flight before it reached D.C.) 

Editing the truth is different. Yes, the decision was made. And yes, Bush was involved in the decision. But the chain of events didn’t happen the way he, or others around him, said they happened. Instead of being proactive and resolute, as he says he was in his memoir, Bush responded to Cheney's request with the same fervor as ordering his eggs over easy. 

For whatever reason, Bush wasn't able to initiate the decision on his own.  

Ultimately, truth editing took place to protect the integrity of the President. We’ve all seen the images of his face after hearing the news of the second tower. He was perplexed. He was nervous. He didn’t know what to do.

The question is, is that okay? Is editing the truth to protect someone, either from persecution, or from just flat out looking bad, justifiable? Is it okay to have history remember someone acting swiftly in the face of peril, when really, they didn't? In some cases, maybe. 

But, in a scenario dealing with national security, and in a decision regarding shooting down a U.S. aircraft boarded with innocent civilians? Definitely not. 


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