The commission investigating the September 11 attacks has released tape recordings of some of the conversations from that day. Among them was one of the most powerful pieces of dialogue I’ve heard in years. I have no jokes or political points to make here; I just want to talk about the actual words.
The situation was this: within the last 50 minutes, two hijacked airlines had struck the World Trade Center in New York, a third had crashed into the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and a fourth was being tracked. The national Air Traffic Control System Command Center contacted the FAA headquarters to suggest military jets be used to intercept this fourth aircraft.
Many people have said that 9/11 felt like a Hollywood movie. If it had been, the scene would have gone like this:
TRAFFIC CONTROL GUY Do we want to think about scrambling aircraft? FAA OFFICIAL Way ahead of you. PULL BACK to reveal out of man's office window, two F-15s screaming off a runway.
Or, perhaps, this:
JACK RYAN You guys need to scramble aircraft, now! FAA OFFICIAL You don't run the FAA, Mr. Ryan. I do. And I'm not spending twenty thousand dollars in jet fuel just because you've got a point to prove! CLOSE UP on RYAN as his jaw clenches with frustration.
This is popcorn entertainment, escapism. There is nothing wrong with that; I often enjoy a good dose. But what I love even more are tiny moments of realistic human failing: when a person does something unthinking, or gets confused. These are touching simply because they’re real and recognizable. Humans make a lot of mistakes. Our lives are not scripted, and if we could yell “cut” and do over every bit of our lives we weren’t happy with, we’d all still be in our teens.
That’s why this little exchange is, for me, almost heart-breakingly tragic.
Air Traffic Control: “Do we want to think about, uh, scrambling aircraft?”
FAA: “God… I don’t know.”
Air Traffic Control: “That’s a decision somebody’s gonna have to make probably in the next 10 minutes.”
FAA: “Uh… you know, everybody just left the room.”