Not since the Challenger explosion in the ‘80’s have I watched the news unfold on the TV screen, mouth agape, unable to process what I see. The events unfolding at the World Trade Center were far worse, however. Challenger’s catastrophe was over in one quick, massive explosion. The news coverage at the World Trade Center was long and arduous, and it kept getting worse with each passing minute. I awoke to find one tower in flames, and minutes later I witnessed a plane hitting the second tower. The scale of the towers is deceiving, and I first thought this was a small commuter plane. Now that I know otherwise, the magnitude of the destruction and death is overwhelming.

Tuesday evening was eerily quiet. We live under a major air traffic corridor for Seattle’s international airport, and the sky was void of planes; the stillness a constant reminder that something terrible had happened. We were ready to give blood to the Red Cross, but learned they didn’t need it – there haven’t been enough survivors.

The next Saturday Seattle held a memorial service downtown. It started at 8:45 in the morning and was supposed to last two hours. When I came home last night around 10:00 pm it was still going on, with an estimated 30,000 people attending. I attended around 10:00 in the morning and it was an incredible experience. Thousands of people, quietly singing Amazing Grace to themselves, were placing flowers at the base of the Seattle Center’s large fountain. A group of firemen came down to place flowers and received a standing ovation by everyone there. Perhaps more symbolic of the peace we all enjoy in this country was the standing ovation we all gave to a group of Muslims, who also came down to grieve. Terrorism and murder have no religion; no race to point a finger at. Three jetliners passed overhead while we stood there thinking about Tuesday’s tragedy. I wonder if they saw us.

As New Yorkers clear away the rubble and decaying body parts that have replaced the lives of thousands of people, what should the rest of us do? Our government is planning to bomb the hell out of Afghanistan. Do they have the right target? Someone at the memorial service held a sign that said, “Humans Unite”. We need more people with that attitude. This is not a skirmish between America and a group of radicals. This is humanity fighting for the right to live in peace without fear. It is the idea that opposing views are to be appreciated as what makes us all unique, not something to be silenced through violence. I can only hope that our government collects all the facts before rushing in with guns blazing. Perhaps we should even go so far as to present our evidence to the world, and let them decide, while our eyes are blinded by fury.

What can we do?

How do we combat terrorism? It is a slippery slope to fight terrorism without becoming terrorists ourselves. The trick is to find alternatives to violence and implement them on a global scale. Here are some thoughts:

  • Any country whose government employs or supports terrorism or guerilla techniques, or any country whose government harbors such groups, is cut off from the rest of the world. No country trades with known terrorist nations. This has to be all or nothing. If only the U.S. adopts this policy, it gives a terrorist nation a target. If the entire world takes the same stance it is easier to convince a terrorist nation that it needs to change.
  • The U.S. and other countries must stop giving weapons and military aid to militant groups. We have a tendency to help groups overthrow governments we don’t like. But, that’s just aiding terrorism. We are no better than terrorists if we continue this practice. This requires a different mindset than we have today. We need to realize that democracy, while great for us, isn’t always great for other countries. Look at the hell that Russia has been plunged into since they changed to a free market economy. It happened to work for our country, but there is no guarantee that it will work for others. The governments of the world should pursue peace, not democracy.
  • We need to give hijackers fewer targets. Airliners and large populated places have long been targets because they are fragile ecosystems that are easy to disrupt. Planes need to be made harder to hijack. How? You can’t turn a plane into an armored vehicle without adding a ton of weight. Instead, we should turn to technology. My friend Shawn had a great idea here. Planes should include a terrorist panic button. When pressed, the plane locates the nearest airport, radios a prerecorded distress signal, and lands without help. This is possible with today’s GPS technology. This behavior would be impossible to abort, either from the air or from the ground, which would remove any human bargaining chip. Terrorists could still threaten to kill passengers, but the usefulness of hijacking a plane is greatly diminished. In time, terrorists will stop targeting planes. Large populated areas are a little harder to protect because people are free to come and go. Most of these are the targets of car bombs, however, and perhaps sensing technology could be used to scan vehicles for explosives before they enter parking structures.
  • Countries need ways to prevent hijackers from entering their borders in the first place. Today, anyone with a passport and travel visa can enter a country. These are paper documents and are easy to fabricate. Every country keeps some sort of computer records of its citizens, perhaps its time to put those records to use. Passports could have barcodes or we could require fingerprint scans at airports. A quick scan would validate the person’s visa status and stop known terrorists at the border.

Of course, all of these things cost money. But outfitting every country and every plane with the technology I outlined above will cost less than waging a military war against terrorism. Should we find the people responsible for the World Trade Center tragedy and bring them to justice? Yes. The innocent people who died on Tuesday deserve nothing less. Should we wage a war on terrorism and try to wipe it out? No. It won’t work. Terrorists are ready to die for their beliefs, they believe with proper planning that they won’t be caught, and we will kill many innocent people in the process, thus becoming terrorists ourselves. The only answer for the long term is to change the face of the world so terrorism is no longer a viable way to invoke change. As long as terrorists believe otherwise, their destruction and murder will continue.