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September 16, 2001

Order of Magnitude: The Toll and the Technology


Krista Niles/The New York Times
At Bellevue Hospital, a wall became an impromptu billboard for posters of some of the thousands of persons still missing after the World Trade Center attack.

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A Day of Terror

ANTHROPOLOGISTS tell of primitive tribes with just six numbers in their counting system. One, two, three, four, five and many. One word must serve for anything so big it cannot be counted on a single hand.

With the invention of zero, a gift of ancient Arab mathematics, people can talk about arbitrarily large numbers, death tolls included, expanding on what it takes to overwhelm. But even the most technologically advanced societies have limits to the enormities a mind can bear.

The attack on the Pentagon and the disintegration of the World Trade Center produced more horror than a human brain could handle. Neurons became as badly jammed as phone lines into Manhattan chirping out the grating tonal triad that says the system is overloaded, please don't call again.

Perhaps the hardest thing to process was how incongruously low-tech the disaster was. After years of agonizing over how to keep plutonium under lock and key or whether to erect impenetrable missile shields, the world was stopped by the technological equivalent of Molotov cocktails, supersized, commandeered by people wielding knives.

For the rest of the week, TV commentators vainly sought historical comparisons, something that might help ease the mental pain. Every one came up wanting.

Freshly revived by the recent movie, Pearl Harbor was invoked again and again. But with 2,300 dead, it was not in the running. And carrying out that sneak attack required 360 Japanese planes launched from a flotilla of 6 aircraft carriers, 2 battleships, 3 cruisers and 11 destroyers. How terribly inefficient.

An earnest commentator on PBS predictably brought more historical perspective, drawing on the Battle of Antietam in 1862, when more than 4,000 died on American soil. But the carnage (soldiers again, not civilians) took place over a day, not a hundred minutes, and there was nothing impersonal about the slaughter. Some 70,000 Union soldiers and 50,000 Confederates engaged in excruciating face-to-face combat. You knew who your enemy was and could look into his eyes.

With tens of thousands of people working in the buildings, it seemed for a while that the sheer number of fatalities could dwarf even Antietam, requiring another zero, another order of magnitude. Had the attacks on the two towers been timed a bit more precisely, closing off possibility of escape, or had the plane that hit the Pentagon aimed for a bull's-eye, the slaughter could have approached the scale of Hiroshima, where some 70,000 Japanese citizens were exterminated in a nuclear flash, and Nagasaki, where a similar number died three days later. But bringing on such destruction required the most advanced weapons ever made, the product of a three-year, $2 billion endeavor involving some of the smartest people on earth an inefficiency that again belongs to an earlier century, a more primitive time.

The terrorists' own Manhattan project employed a small cadre of people, four or five per plane, apparently armed with knives and box cutters. Broken beer bottles might just as easily have served. There was no need for a big research-and-development budget. The flying bombs sat ready and loaded on the runways, the product of decades of research and refinement. It was not just planes that were hijacked but technology, to be used jujitsu style against its inventors.

Oklahoma City showed it does not take high-tech weaponry, just fertilizer and fuel oil in a rental truck, to destroying a multistory building and 168 lives. The attacks on Tuesday carried an even more chilling lesson. Play the system right, and Neolithic technology can be leveraged to bring on nuclear-like devastation, killing thousands, crippling companies, clogging communications, closing down every airport in the country and every cubic mile of North American sky.

The kamikaze terrorists had at their disposal the most democratic of technologies, a weapon of mass destruction available to all: the second law of thermodynamics.

THE 19th-century equation is more evocatively stated in the title of a Chinua Achebe novel, "Things Fall Apart." And the bigger they are, the harder they fall, especially with a little help.

The glass-and-steel gossamers called skyscrapers turn out to be as delicate as their architects try to make them appear reminders of how fragile order is, of how much energy, physical and mental, is required to stave off entropy and build. With the slightest nudge, heat and gravity take over, the artificial reverting to the natural. What takes years to create collapses in seconds. Randomness, entropy, disorder return.

Suddenly the only clues that the 110-story towers sheltered an electronic nerve center for the civilized world were the cellphones clutched against ears by hordes of well-dressed refugees. People who had ridden high-speed elevators to sky-high offices were fleeing on foot down endless coiling stairs. The unimaginable amounts of virtual money that coursed through the computers at Morgan Stanley and Cantor Fitzgerald all those zeros were present only as paper fluttering down on Lower Manhattan in a nightmarish version of a ticker-tape parade.

The mission had been accomplished. Much of the civilized world was left literally terrified, so much that seemed important that morning rendered meaningless by the afternoon. And this time television, with its crisp logos, only diminished the event "America Under Attack," "Attack on America," as though this was another school shooting or forest fire, something that could be packaged with room to melodramatize.

An old saying of the 1960's: We don't know what World War III will be fought with, but World War IV will be fought with rocks. In an age when technology cooperates in its own destruction, how wrong that may turn out to be.

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