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Interesting discussion from a not-very-reliable source. The question of whether 60 passengers could be subdued by four men with plastic knives and box-cutters for more than two minutes does linger doubtfully in my mind..



Fictoid #9: Plastic Knives and Box Cutters

Following the September 11th attack, government authorities declared that the weapons used to hijack the planes that crashed into World Trade Center were plastic knives and box cutters. The story about plastic knives and box cutters, implements which passengers then were not legally restricted from bring through security checkpoints at airports, was relentlessly drummed into the public’s mind by two of the highest officials in the government. John Ashcroft, the attorney general, Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense.

Ashcroft told ABC News on September 15th that “investigators believed that each of the commandeered planes had been hijacked by groups of three to six men armed with box cutters and plastic knives.” Donald Rumsfeld told Fox News on September 16th, that the hijackers used weapons that are distinctively different – – plastic knives.” On October 9th, he suggested to Dan Rather on CBS News “plastic knives and the use of a U.S. airliner filled with American people as a missile [were used] to destroy a World Trade Center.” On November 7th, he described to Jim Lehrer on PBS ” One of our planes is used as a missile to fly into our building and into the World Trade Center. It was beyond one’s imagination that plastic knives and our own commercial aircraft filled with our own people would be used as the implement of war.”

Actually, it was their imagination, not established facts, that informed the world that the hijackers had used plastic knives and box cutters to commandeer the two airliners that had destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Not a scintilla of evidence had been found then— or to date— that either plastic knives or box cutters were used by any of the ten hijackers who crashed United Airlines flight 175 and American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center. No box cutters or plastic knives were found in the debris. Nor were the cockpit voice recorders ever found from Flight 11 and Flight 175. No witnesses, either passengers or crew members, on either flight 11 or flight 175 ever reported any hijacker having a box cutter or a plastic knife. Both United Airlines flight 175 and American Airlines Flight 11 had departed from Boston. Once both Boeing 767s had reached their cruising altitudes, the hijackers took control of them by unknown means without any of the four pilots warning the ground controllers, even though they had open radios. Both airliners then turned off their transponders and disappeared from the computerized radar screens.

No message was ever received from flight 175 that mentioned any weapons. So, for all anyone knows, the hijackers may have used guns, grenades, poison gas or any other weapon

An executive summary of an unpublished FAA memo stated:

“At approximately 9:18 am, it was reported that two crew members in the cockpit were stabbed. The flight then descended with no communications from the flight crew members. The American Airlines FAA Principal Security Inspector (PFI) was notified by Suzanne Clark of American airlines Corporate Headquarters that an on board flight attendant contacted American Airlines Operation Center and informed that a passenger located in seat 10B shot and killed a passenger in 9B at 9:20 am. The passenger killed was Daniel Lewin shot by Satam al-Suqama. One bullet was reported to have been fired.”

The information came from two cell phone calls made by flight attendants, Betty Ong and Madeline Amy Sweeney, to Americal Airlines ground controllers. Ong, who was in the first class compartment— and the only witness to the assault on the cockpit. She reported that she had seen four hijackers come from first-class seats, kill a passenger seated behind them, and use a chemical weapon which she described as “some sort of spray” that made her eyes burn and made it difficult for her to breathe.” Madeline Amy Sweeney, the flight attendant in the rear compartment, call was not recorded. According to the ground controller, she said that the pilots, another flight attendant and a passenger had been stabbed or killed.

The FAA subsequently said that the report of a gun shot was an error proceeding from a “miscommunication”. The ground controller did not recall a gun shot or a bullet being mentioned.

In any case, there were no box cutters or plastics knives on flight 11 were used.

Two other flights were hijacked that morning, American Airlines flight 77, a Boeing 757 departing from Virginia, and United Airlines Flight 93, a Boeing 757 departing from Newark. On flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon, one single passenger, Barbara Olsen, reported on weapons that some of the five hijackers had in the back of the plane. She told her husband, Theodore Olsen, on a cell phone that the hijackers who herded her and other the passengers into the back of the plane had two kind of weapons: knives and cardboard cutters (presumably box cutters). She did not say anything about the other hijackers in the cockpit and she apparently did not even know that they were piloting the plane. Nor did any other passenger or crew member on Flight 77 describe the hijackers’ weapons. It cannot be assumed that all the hijackers on the plane had similar weapons. The hijackers assaulting the cockpit might have needed more sophisticated weaponry to rapidly stun or kill the pilots.

On flight 93, the Boeing 757 which crashed near Pittsburgh, the flight attendant reported over a cell phone that a hijacker in her plane had a “bomb strapped on.” Some unidentified person also said over the loud speaker that there was a “bomb” aboard the plane. A passenger, Todd Beamer, talked over a cell phone about the “terrorist with a bomb.” Another passenger, Tom Burnett, told his wife over a cell phone that he had heard that a pilot had been “knifed.” No passenger or crew member described either box cutters or plastic knives as weapons and, as far as is known, no box cutters of plastic knives been recovered from the wreckage.

Similar weapons thus were not reported in the different flights. A paralytic chemical spray was described in the front compartment of flight 11, knives and card cutters was described in the rear compartment of Flight 77 and a bomb was described on flight 93. Nor is there any reason to assume that different hijackers on different planes leaving from different airports would use the same weaponry. Atta and Alomari, for example, having made a detour to Portland, might have obtained weapons unavailable to the hijackers in Virginia and New Jersey.)

In any case, the Ashcroft’s story that the hijackers used box-cutters and plastic knives in the attack on the World Trade Center is a functional fictoid. In this case, the function was diversion. This fictoid serves to divert public attentions from the responsibility, and legal liability, of the government and airlines to prevent major weapons— such as guns, bombs, chemical sprays and hunting knives from being carried aboard airplanes. If such illegal devices had been smuggled aboard the planes, the liability could amount to billions of dollars. If, , on the other hand, it could be disseminated that the hijackers had only used plastic knives, such as those provided by the airlines for meals, or box cutters, which were allowed on planes, neither the airlines, the screeners at the airport, or the FAA, which regulates the safety of airports, could be held legally responsible. Paul Pillar, who had headed the CIA’s counter-terrorism, could thus explain that”the attack that killed almost 4,000 people used box cutters.” This press accepted it as established fact. The New York Times, for example, reported “the hijackers did not use firearms, which would probably have been detected, but apparently wielded box-cutter knives of the type that were then allowed on board but are now banned.”

What made the box cutter and and plastic knives fictoid particularly welcome was that the FAA had found massive failures of airport screeners to find weapons prior to the attacks. Such tests were conducted by FAA undercover “Red Teams.” In 1998, for example, one FAA Read team leader told the New York Times, “we were successful in getting major weapons— guns and bombs–aboard planes at least 85 percent the time.” The failure rate was as high as 97 percent at some airports. Nor was this vulnerability corrected before September 11th. FAA Special Agent Bogdan Dzakovic, according to USA TODAY, said that FAA officials had ignored security problems before the terrorist attacks.

The fictoid successfully deflected from this gaping hole in security.


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