9/11 – The Only Plane in the Sky

By Isabella Strauch

“WTC Smok­ing” by Michael Foran

The attacks on the World Trade Cen­ter as well as the Pen­ta­gon in Sep­tem­ber 2001, dubbed 9/11, were a major news event. As is the case with trau­mat­ic events, peo­ple often remem­ber exact­ly what they were doing when they heard the news. With 9/11, how­ev­er, visu­al images have been engraved in people’s minds as well: a plane fly­ing into the tow­ers and peo­ple sub­se­quent­ly – out of sheer des­per­a­tion – jump­ing out of win­dows. Michael Moore’s doc­u­men­tary, Fahren­heit 9/11, offers an alter­na­tive media per­spec­tive sig­ni­fy­ing 9/11: that of a pres­i­dent over­whelmed by the news and inca­pable of an imme­di­ate reaction.

On Sep­tem­ber 11, 2011, then Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States, George W. Bush, was sched­uled to vis­it Emma E. Book­er Ele­men­tary School in Sara­so­ta, Flori­da. He was accom­pa­nied by a cohort of jour­nal­ists who cov­ered the stu­dents’ read­ing of “My Pet Goat” on tele­vi­sion. When White House Chief of Staff, Andrew Card, whis­pered into Bush’s ear, “A sec­ond plane has hit the sec­ond tow­er. Amer­i­ca is under attack,” Bush remained in his seat for anoth­er sev­en min­utes, seem­ing­ly inca­pable of deal­ing with the sit­u­a­tion. Yet Andrew Card had care­ful­ly cho­sen his words and imme­di­ate­ly stepped back to avoid fur­ther ques­tion­ing from the Pres­i­dent in front of the chil­dren. So why didn’t George W. Bush jump up imme­di­ate­ly, leave the class­room, and take charge of the sit­u­a­tion? Andrew Card claims that the Pres­i­dent dealt extreme­ly well with the news, remain­ing calm and col­lect­ed. In the mean­time, his team was busy gath­er­ing infor­ma­tion to assess the sit­u­a­tion. The school vis­it had been sched­uled for weeks and was, in fact, pub­lic knowl­edge. Were the Pres­i­dent and maybe even the school targets?

Cer­tain­ly, the first objec­tive was to ensure the President’s safe­ty. Although the media crit­i­cized him for being AWOL (Absent With­out Offi­cial Leave) in the eight hours fol­low­ing the attacks, it was Moore’s doc­u­men­tary that scru­ti­nized this par­tic­u­lar moment. Instead of allow­ing him to reas­sure fel­low Amer­i­cans that every­thing was under con­trol, Bush was escort­ed to the safest place his secu­ri­ty team could think of: Air Force One. Did Bush fail in his role as Pres­i­dent and Com­man­der-in-Chief, or was he in fact delib­er­ate­ly calm and collected?

Gar­rett M. Graaf’s arti­cle that appeared near­ly fif­teen years after the attack is based on forty hours of orig­i­nal inter­views. “We’re the Only Plane in the Sky”  por­trays the expe­ri­ences of pas­sen­gers, mem­bers of the admin­is­tra­tion, crew, and the White House press aboard the air­craft. Two fac­tors influ­enced Bush’s deci­sions that day:

  1. With­out smart phones, com­mu­ni­ca­tion wasn’t near­ly as good as it is today. News was com­ing in slow­ly and, due to the attack on the Pen­ta­gon, sheer chaos had bro­ken out in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. Since air­plane pilots all over the U.S. used the same sys­tems to get in touch with their oper­a­tors after the Fed­er­al Avi­a­tion Admin­is­tra­tion (FAA) imposed a no-fly zone, com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tems were sat­u­rat­ed. Planes that were already air­borne had to prove that they were not hijacked. When­ev­er com­mu­ni­ca­tion did work, the Pres­i­dent was swamped with news – most of the infor­ma­tion was nei­ther vital nor confirmed.
  1. The Pres­i­dent is not near­ly as autonomous as many believe. George W. Bush imme­di­ate­ly want­ed to return to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., but Secret Ser­vice agents lit­er­al­ly pre­vent­ed him from doing exact­ly that. By fed­er­al law, the Secret Ser­vice has to pro­tect the Pres­i­dent even against his own wish­es. Dave Wilkin­son, the Assis­tant Agent-in-Charge, claims that despite Bush fight­ing them “tooth and nail all day,” Wilkin­son did under­stand that there were too many pas­sen­gers aboard whose lives were at risk.

Air Force One made two stops that day before return­ing to D.C.: one at Barks­dale Air Force Base, where the Pres­i­dent made anoth­er brief state­ment, and the sec­ond at Offutt Air Force Base, where he held a video con­fer­ence with Vice Pres­i­dent Dick Cheney. The Pres­i­dent final­ly demand­ed to return to the White House. One mem­ber of staff remarked, “You would have had to tie him down to keep him there [in Offutt] overnight.” Mike Morell of the Cen­tral Intel­li­gence Agency remem­bers an inse­cure Bush trans­form­ing into a “wartime pres­i­dent in just a mat­ter of hours.”

While Bush’s sub­se­quent actions under­lined his new-found role of a strong leader, his “Glob­al War on Ter­ror­ism” has been crit­i­cized ever since. Nev­er­the­less, the mem­o­rable moment at Emma E. Book­er Ele­men­tary School reflect­ed a delib­er­at­ing, con­trolled Pres­i­dent and not the help­less­ly inca­pable per­son Michael Moore portrays.

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Isabel­la Strauch is an under­grad­u­ate stu­dent at Hum­boldt Uni­ver­si­ty, major­ing in Amer­i­can Stud­ies. She has a pas­sion for rug­by, lit­er­a­ture, and Irish-Amer­i­can history.