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Twelve years ago today, I was working as a school-based therapist in Cecil County (Maryland) Public Schools. I was waiting for a team meeting to start when the secretary came in. One plane had already hit the World Trade Center (for a flash, I thought “small plane, happens sometimes”) and they thought that another had hit.
One is an accident. Two is deliberate.
The meeting was cancelled and soon Maryland’s governor closed all of the public schools. The whole state is on the flight path to Washington, DC and what if a plane hit a school?
I drove from Perryville to my office in Elkton, stopping for an early lunch at a Wendy’s in North East, Maryland because businesses – malls, gas stations, everything – were closing.
I remember looking out the window and across US Route 40 at the tiny state police barracks based in an old farm house. The barracks had a semicircular driveway and each end was blocked by patrol cars, behind which stood troopers holding shotguns and rifles.
I thought that no force on earth could make me cross that road.
North East is a tiny town between the small towns of Elkton and Perryville, themselves in the I-95 corridor between Philadelphia and Baltimore.
At the time, though, an attack there seemed reasonable. Any horrible event seemed possible.
That was the start of my interest in disaster mental health.
In the weeks that followed, I repeatedly offered my counseling skills to disaster relief agencies but I did not have the necessary credentials.
When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, I had the credentials and some training and I was as ready as anyone could be. In fact, eight years ago right now, I was there, in Mobile, Alabama.
I served in the end of the first wave of volunteers, 9/8-22/05. Many of my supervisors on Katrina were veterans of the 9/11 response. The terrorist attacks that happened twelve years ago today produced some really good leaders for the response to Hurricane Katrina.
Now, as a school psychologist, I have a great interest in school shootings, and here’s where I marvel at something else from 9/11.
On the morning of 9/11/01, the standard reply to an armed take-over of an aircraft was for the crew and passengers to sit passively and cooperate fully. The plane would eventually land and then either the persons on it – hostages – would be released by the hijackers, or commandos would raid the plane and kill all of the hijackers and probably a few passengers.
Either way, the set response was to sit down, shut up, do as you’re told, wait for something beyond your control.
By the time of the take-over of Flight 93 over Pennsylvania, though, the passengers were in touch with friends on the ground who knew what had happened in New York City and Washington.
The term “paradigm shift” has become a cliché, but that’s what happened on Flight 93. We’ll never know the details, but we know that the passengers, armed with information and whatever weapons and plans they could improvise, without “training” from “experts,” fought back and probably saved the U. S. Capitol.
The rules had changed. The good people of Flight 93 adapted on the spot, changed their own rules, improvised a response.
The shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado happened in 1999. Most schools are still using a traditional “lockdown” model that amounts to “sit down, shut up, do as you’re told, wait for something beyond your control” today, just like in 1999.
I’ve been trained in and am working from a different model, one that still includes lockdown when necessary but includes active resistance – diversion, distraction, delay – during a lockdown. It’s also based on informing the students and faculty and promoting independent decisions.
Twelve years ago, the paradigm shifted in the space of hours without help from experts. The events of 9/11/01 suggest that we can learn and do better, as we have.
When the shoe bomber tried to strike in December 2001, the passengers jumped him, subdued him, and stopped him. The underwear bomber in December 2009 was also subdued by passengers.
Many other times in the last twelve years, someone aboard a plane has acted in a way that scared other passengers and suggested an attempt to crash the plane. Every time, those around that passenger reacted strongly and intervened.
This doesn’t guarantee the safety of our aircraft. The bombers in 2001 and 2009 encountered technical problems with their explosives that gave the passengers a chance to act.
However, we’ve decided that we’re not going down quietly, not going to die passively. We may not win, but we will lose fighting.
Twelve years ago today, we figured that out in hours. Schools have taken years but they are catching up. Some students and faculty at Virginia Tech in 2007 barricaded and escaped and survived.
At each new challenge while serving on Hurricane Katrina, I asked myself, “How do I want to handle this?”
It’s a powerful question. It took me out of the realm of old, habitual reaction and put me in touch with the potential and choices of the moment.