11 Sep 2010 2:08 pm   //   Filed under: In the news

Getting it right

Today I’m thinking about a few hours I spent on a military base on September 11, 2001. I was into my second week on the job as a news reporter for The Carlisle Sentinel newspaper in Pennsylvania.

We watched the footage on CNN in the newsroom for a few minutes, then I was sent to gather reporting from one of our local military bases for the September 12 paper. Ultimately I contributed quotes and facts to three stories as part of the paper’s reporting team. One story was about the military, another about churches, the third about schools. Nine years later, the parts of those stories that stand out most to me are the quotes from the military professors I interviewed at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania. Keep in mind these quotes all came within a few hours of the attacks:

“As soon as we saw the film this morning of the second aircraft hitting the tower, it was clear almost immediately what was going on,” said Lt. Col. Thomas T. Smith, garrison commander [of the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle].

Smith said the barracks is following a standard plan for heightened security and also received special instructions from Washington. …

At the War College, where military officers learn about situations such as terrorist attacks, television sets were tuned to the news in most classrooms. In an office Tuesday morning, professors Bill Lord and Greg Baxter stood watching TV pictures of plumes of smoke over the New York skyline.

“It’s apparently a well-coordinated attack,” Lord said.

“Which reveals something about who may have done it,” Baxter added. “This was not amateur hour.”

When the report came through of the plane crash at the Pentagon, Lord recalled when he worked there six years ago. Based on the TV footage, he could identify which offices were hit.

Col. Mike Colpo, director of the department of military assistance to civilian authorities, said this will likely become an example of how military personnel help with disaster response tasks such as clearing rubble and providing drinking water….

Speaking to reporters outside the barracks, Professor Robin Dorff noted the trends in American terrorism and the difficulty in reacting to them.

“Anger is probably going to be the dominant emotion,” said Dorff, chairman of the college’s department of national security and strategy.

“A deliberate and analytical approach to this is what’s warranted,” he said.

Dorff said the attacks will likely cause further debate about which anti-terrorism steps are acceptable and which infringe on people’s liberties.

Technology, such as the Internet, has made it easier for terrorist groups to organize large-scale attacks, Dorff said.

“The benefits we get from the information age,” he said, “are also beneficial to those who want to do us harm.”

Wow. While everybody else was freaking out, these calm military experts accurately identified the next 9 year’s worth of 9/11 story arcs—the war on terror, disaster response, civil liberties, information control. We don’t do enough to celebrate people who make accurate predictions and who spot important ideas first. If we measured people by what they actually knew, and how good they were in the past at figuring things out, we’d pay more attention to military history wonks—like these professors in my story. And maybe we’d pay less attention to hosts of cable TV talk shows, Alaskan politicians, and crazy pastors in Florida.