Engineering Destruction

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Just two weeks ago, the structural engineer who built the World Trade Center was in Frankfurt for a conference on skyscrapers, reassuring his audience that his towers - the tallest in the world when erected in 1970 - were well built to thwart terrorist attacks. To bring down his creation, declared Les Robinson, it would take more than a jet airliner. "I designed it for a 707 to smash into it."

Now it has fallen to other experts to piece together why the towers imploded and disintegrated not long after the impacts of two jumbo jets. Those experts are forced to look at the towers not with the admiring gaze of Robertson their maker, but through the eyes of someone who wanted to engineer their obliteration.

The speculation is that the terrorists were aided by a technical mind that understood the towers' particular vulnerabilities. How else to explain, other than to credit sheer, horrifically bad luck, that the planes struck the buildings at exactly the height, and in just the right way, to bring them down?

The jets - each weighing 90.7 metric tons - were successfully aimed to slice through the towers' systems of support. Keeping the buildings together were a central steel core running up the middle of each, and a perimeter of rigid, exoskeleton-like walls made of 46-centimetre tubular steel columns set 56 centimetres apart. The planes hit between the eighty-sixth and one-hundred and second floors of the 110-storey structures. Had they hit lower, the heavier bases of the buildings would have offered a lot more resistance, according to a civil engineering professor at the University of California at Berkeley quoted in Salon. Had the planes hit higher, they might have merely damaged the tops, but not left so many floors unsupported that they pancaked down through the rest of the tower.

Surely not coincidentally, the airplanes also were fully loaded with fuel, the better to create the intense fire that eventually melted through the towers' remaining steel supports, sending them crashing to earth. Sickening as it is to contemplate, the rubble that buries thousands at the heart of lower Manhattan this morning may well represent some twisted mind's technical triumph.

The human mastery of technology has always been Janus-faced - one side a dreamy-eyed genius for construction, the other a steely-eyed genius for destruction.

The genius for destruction is what inhabited American general Curtis LeMay as he gazed at aerial photographs of Tokyo during the Second World War, and realized the city was a tinderbox vulnerable to low-flying planes dropping relatively low-tech incendiary bombs. The firebombing of Tokyo killed more people than either atomic bomb later dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

A similar genius for implementing devastation and terror inhabited Wernher von Braun, the rocket scientist who invented and oversaw the production of the rocket-powered V-2 "vengeance weapons" that Germany rained on England during the Second World War. In von Braun, the Janus-split of engineer as creator and as destroyer lived most starkly. After his capture by the Allies at war's end, he went on to direct America's mission to the moon.

Von Braun was not amoral. At least he didn't portray himself as such. Around campfires he would lecture his new American hunting buddies on God's "ethical laws" and of his belief that the Creator wanted humankind to peacefully explore the universe. But to push forward his rocket dream, he placed himself in service of Hitler's generals, used slave labour to build the V-2s and invented those pilotless, indiscriminate killers from the air that are the precursors of today's nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles.

As father of America's space program, Von Braun well understood the level of human organization needed for massive, complex feats of engineering, whether to erect the world's tallest towers or to send a spacecraft to Mars. He knew that fashioning and maintaining such complex physical systems required systems of people striving day-in and day-out to reach shared goals - the engineering of new beehives.

"Great numbers of professionals from many walks of life, trained to cooperate unfailingly, must be recruited. Such training will require years before each can fit his special ability into the pattern of the whole," he wrote in a 1962 edition of The Mars Project.

In that vision of grand endeavour lies ironies that were made especially stark by last Tuesday's terrible events. As our society becomes ever more a network of high-tech, interdependent beehives, it becomes more vulnerable to attack by anyone with a genius for engineering destruction. The Pentagon's nerve centre for directing the American military, the World Trade Center's beehive for coordinating global finance - these are but two of myriad other potential targets, from water supplies to subway systems to electrical grids.

And when Von Braun, former employee of Hitler as well as Kennedy, speaks of "great numbers ... trained to cooperate unfailingly" he leaves it to political leaders to figure out how such unstinting loyalty to a cause - any cause - can be engineered. How do you motivate technical people to create? Or destroy? If you are an American engineer, you may look to your president for inspiration. Or, if you are a Muslim extremist who has come to see America as your oppressor, you may look to Osama bin Laden.

Progress through technology is an article of faith in Western culture, nowhere more so than in the United States. Westerners find it easy enough to share Wernher von Braun's belief that God created us to create ever-more ingenious towers, machines, systems. At the dawn of the Internet era, for example, that kind of can-do optimism drenched the pages of Wired, the cyber-tech bible. The Internet would decentralize, democratize, liberate and create untold wealth, one article after another promised.

Today, we are left to wonder whether the attack on America, so well coordinated, could have been launched without the Internet. It may well have been ordered, after all, from the remote mountainsides of Afghanistan, and carried out by a stateless army living everywhere and nowhere. It's the Wired dream turned on its head.

Profoundly challenged, too, by Tuesday's terrible events, is the article of faith that whoever possesses the world's most advanced technology is somehow made safer by it. Consider that terrifying child of Wernher von Braun's imagination, the nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The technology was once so complex and cutting-edge that it was unthinkable that Third World countries could possess and aim such a missile threateningly. Now, the potential spread of ICBMs is inspiring yet another proposed grand feat of engineering: President Bush wants to command into being a "shield" that can, in the blink of an eye, locate and shoot down missiles streaking through space. The assumption is that a new super-system will trump "old" technology owned by enemies.

Consider, however, the argument of former Star Wars scientist Theodore Postol, now a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He and many other experts say such a shield will be tricked by devices as primitive as Mylar balloons released as decoys to defeat a hundred billion dollars worth of high tech.

Suddenly that critique resonates profoundly: the notion that bigger, better, more complex and advanced systems can't protect us from anyone with a genius for engineering destruction. It resonates because we have seen what can be done with a few handmade knives, what can be done with a few recruits "trained" (to borrow von Braun's words) "to cooperate unfailingly." Some dark brilliance studied airliners, which were designed to carry tourists and laptop-toting business people, and saw instead a technology for laying waste.

It could be engineered. And it was.

David Beers is a regular contributor to the Vancouver Sun and is the author of Blue Sky Dream: A Memoir of America's Fall from Grace. This article originally ran in the Sun. It is posted on with permission.

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