Chaos Theory: 9-11, thinking out loud

Can Chaos Theory Even Be Applied to 9-11?

This is a fundamental question. According to Nina Hall (Introduction to Exploring Chaos, Norton, 1993) “Chaos theory has resulted from a synthesis of imaginative mathematics and readily accessible computer power. It presents a universe that is deterministic, obeying the fundamental physical laws, but with a predisposition for disorder, complexity and unpredictability.” Does that understanding allow us to say as some observers have that events on the morning of 9-11 were chaotic; that ‘it is chaos out there?’ Certainly the language of chaos theory is useful to describe the events of the day, but can the theory, itself, be applied? Let us start by considering the affirmative and the negative as one source has it.

In the broadest sense the affirmative is supported by Ian Percival in his article in Hall’s compendium of a series of articles in New Science, “Chaos: a science for the real world.” Percival says, simply, “The theory of chaos touches all disciplines.” However, Percival later clearly supports the negative. “The state of Eastern European politics may look chaotic, but you cannot study a subject of this type using chaos theory.” Percival minces no words here. The seeming disorder of politics is not chaotic, though it may look so.

And that may be the case for 9-11, except that the events of 9-11 themselves were essentially a military attack and response, almost always ‘chaotic’ by anyone’s definition of the term. Military lore has it that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. There is an exception if the attacker achieves the military principal of surprise. Mohammed Atta did just that and his battle plan proceeded as planned; it became ‘chaotic’ only in its final moments in the sky over Shanksville. The response, on the other hand, descended into chaos at multiple, discrete, times beginning with Atta’s first transmission, ‘we have some planes.’

So, what to do? We have a situation described in multiple instances as chaotic yet at least one voice in the literature cautions against the use of chaos theory as a basis for study. Reader, be warned, leap in logic coming up. Let’s turn to a self organizing source, Wikipedia to see what we can find. There are several entries but one that looks a bit promising is “Chaos theory in organizational development.”

Chaos as Metaphor

One of the first things the Wikipedia article tells us is that “‘parallels’ between organizations and the sub-atomic particles exist largely in terms of analogy (metaphorically) between two very different domains of activity.” Here we can acknowledge that the domain of activity on 9-11, described as chaotic, is different than, for example, quantum mechanics. Wikipedia introduces us to Charlotte Shelton. Shelton co-wrote “From Chaos to Order: Exploring New Frontiers in Conflict Management” in 2003. Wikipedia credits her in this way: “The introduction of chaos theory brings the principles of quantum physics to the pragmatic world.” This leads to a discussion in the article on self-organization, one of the specific observables when looking back at the events of 9-11. More on that later.

Time for another leap in logic.

A Paper You Never Heard About

In March, 1997, then Major Susan E. Durham, Ph. D. wrote a research paper at the Air Command and Staff College titled, “Chaos Theory for the Practical Military Mind.” Durham is clear that chaos theory is a mathematical theory and acknowledges the difficulty in application to social situations. Yet, despite what we learned from Percival about proceeding along those lines, Durham jumps right in cautioning, “when we don’t recognize the potential in well-behaved systems to deteriorate suddenly into Chaotic behavior, we also risk losing control.

Nothing on the morning of 9-11 was more well-behaved than the system of loading passengers onto commercial airliners and transporting them to their destination. Nothing had been more well-behaved in a decade than the need for a military response to a hijacked aircraft. There hadn’t been any. It was an orderly morning and linear systems were in place to manage the events of the day, or not.

Four Linear Systems (In order of appearance)

The first linear system challenged that morning was the FAA practice for handling planes and pilots who didn’t follow established procedures. On any given day planes and pilots deviate for benign and transient reasons. Controllers exercise various techniques to correct the situation which can take several minutes. When AA 11 went ‘nordo’ and then quit transponding Boston Center went through its checklist of techniques with no success. Its greatest fear was that the plane was experiencing serious mechanical failure and the Center took steps to allow a continued safe passage. At 8:24 what was a linear situation handled by a linear process suddenly became nonlinear. Mohammed Atta announced “we have some planes.”

The second linear system challenged was the airline practice to go into lock down when a plane was in distress. That system was alerted around 8:20 when the AA 11 flight crew reported a hijacking in progress to American Airlines. The debilitating result of lock down procedures is to create a black box, literally the equivalent of a black hole in space, an entity that sucks all available information into a closed system. The system proceeded at American Airlines (and, later, at United Airlines) as planned with the unfortunate result that no one outside of American Airlines knew what they knew. In and of itself the system did not become nonlinear until the company learned about AA 77 and it suddenly had two situations to deal with simultaneously.

The third linear system challenged was the hijack notification protocol. As spelled out in the staff statement at the Commissions June 2004 hearing, the protocol was laborious, unsuited, and never used. It was irrelevant.

The fourth linear system challenged was the search and rescue protocol. Indianapolis Center did not know it had a hijacking; it thought it had a plane down and implemented search and rescue procedures. The Center called the USAF Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) at Langley AFB to report the loss of AA 77. The RCC immediately initiated well established procedures and multiple state law enforcement agencies and the Civil Air Patrol were notified. No one outside the RCC community was notified and there was no apparent feedback loop to the Langley Air Force Base Command Post. This linear system remained stable that morning with the net result being that it was the source of false circular reporting confirming that AA 77 was down.

The missing link, feedback

The theory of chaos has it that feedback, itself, is a contributor to chaos. Percival tells us that “oscillating systems become chaotic because they possess an element of ‘feedback.'” That element “generates complex dynamics in simple systems.” Hall, herself, broadens our understanding. Her summation is that “Chaos also seems to be responsible for maintaining order in the natural world. Feedback mechanisms not only introduce flexibility into living systems, sustaining delicate dynamical balances, but also promote nature’s propensity for self-organization.” And it is, metaphorically, precisely on this point of self-organization that events of 9-11 turned, there was little feedback and some of that which did exist was counter-productive, for example the circular reporting of the crash of AA 77. Now, back to self-organization.


The Wikipedia article definition is: “Self-organization is the result of re-invention and creative adaptation due to the introduction of, or being in a constant state of, perturbed equilibrium.” All emergency response organizations, and 24-hour watch centers in general, live in this constant state. None of them know when the next call is going to come or what it will bring. The one certain thing is that equilibrium is transient and it most assuredly will be perturbed. Here the reference is to Dooley and Johnson (1995 “TQM, Chaos, and Complexity”). “Being ‘off-balance’ lends itself to regrouping and re-evaluating…in order to make needed adjustments and regain control and equilibrium.” Both NEADS and FAA’s Boston Center are organizations that live in a state of potential perturbed equilibrium. How they adjusted is one of the central stories of 9-11.

But, that wasn’t what was supposed to happen

The nation’s response was supposed to organize around set structures, two in particular. First, both the FAA and NMCC had procedures in place to ‘manage’ events that perturbed the equilibrium. Neither was effective, neither could talk to the other; they might as well have been on different planets.

Second, at the national level, things were supposed to organize around the White House Situation Room. The Secret Service removal of the Vice President to the surreal world of the PEOC virtually ensured that he would be out of touch and filtered from reality, not that the Situation Room was a much better place to be, information-wise. However, there at least the Vice President could have heard, perhaps seen, the Langley fighters overhead at 10:00, as captured on video in real time by a CNN camera crew.

Concerning both the PEOC and the Situation Room, I can’t help but recall George Plimpton’s classic description of a golf swing. has it this way: “His mind invents a nightmarish fantasy in which a team of inept Japanese admirals, located somewhere in his brain, shout useless instructions through the imaginary voice tubes of his creaking body machinery in an effort to help him hit the ball correctly:”

To be continued and a question

What if there had been feedback loops in place that in real time constantly informed FAA’s Herndon Center and Langley’s Command Post of unusual information available at, respectively, FAA’s Great Lakes Region and Langley’s RCC? Herndon knew about “we have some planes.” The Langley Command Post knew in real time that the air defense fighters had been placed on battle stations. Both the Great Lakes Region and the RCC knew that AA 77 had been lost. The time frame is shortly before 9:10, eleven minutes before Colin Scoggins sounded the false, yet oddly appropriate, alarm of an intruder from the north, and twenty two minutes before Danielle O’Brien noticed the real intruder from the west and sounded a second alarm.

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