Chaos Theory and 9-11, some preliminary thoughts

Conversations on the day of September 11, 2001, follow-on news reporting, and internal documents of the 9-11 Commission tell us that people at all levels struggled to describe, report, and analyze an event unparalleled in the nation’s history. The FAA’s New York Air Traffic Control Center Manager in a call to the National Operations Manager at the Herndon Command Center described the situation concerning United Air flight 175 as “kind of chaotic…” The sister of an Identification Technician at NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector in attempting to reach a relative said “I’ll call back because it is such chaos.” And then the caller repeated that to her sister, “…it’s just me. I’ll call back it sounds like chaos.” More tersely and to the point, a staffer at the Herndon Command Center on the FAA’s tactical net simply said, “it’s chaos out there.”

Washington Post staff writers, Charles Lane, Don Phillips and David Snyder wrote an article on September 17, 2001, titled, “A Sky Filled With Chaos, Uncertainty and True Heroism.” That early characterization continued as primary source documents became available to the general public. The Associated Press on Aug 12, 2005, spoke to the release of oral histories in an article titled “Chaos of 9/11 revealed in vivid oral histories, Firefighters’ stories documenting horrific day released to public.” Earlier, on March 31, 2005, CTV (Canada) published an article, “NYC emergency call tapes reveal 9/11 chaos.” With the emergence of the tapes from the North East Air Defense Sector in 2006 the National Public Radio lead was “NORAD Tapes Reveal Sept. 11 Chaos.” And on September 21, 2007, New York Times writer Michael Powell published an article titled, “In 9/11 Chaos, Giuliani Forged a Lasting Image.

The 9-11 Commission Staff found things to be no different. A draft Team 8 Monograph, “A New Kind of War: Defense of the Homeland on September 11, 2001” contained this language: “The challenge to Commission Staff in relating the history of one of the most chaotic days in our history is to avoid replicating that chaos in writing about it.”

My resume submitted to the 9-11 Commission and uploaded to the web on the Scribd site by History Commons contains this language: “Proposed doctoral thesis on application of chaos theory to analysis.” I am ABD (all but dissertation) at the George Mason University, Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. I left the program in late 1992 after passing comprehensive exams to accept employment with a new office at the Department of Defense Inspector General, which ultimately became the Office of Intelligence Review, my springboard to becoming first a member of the professional staff of the Congressional Joint Inquiry and then the 9-11 Commission itself. It is fitting, then, that I start working on some unfinished business and the juxtaposition of my earlier stated purpose and the chaotic events of 9-11 is a good place to start.

My understanding, certainly subject to change, is that chaos is bounded randomness and that the nature of things is that chaos gives rise to self organization. The bounds of the day were the established protocols–how was it that both hijacked and lost aircraft were to be reported, managed, and resolved. Self organization was bottoms up. Once folks in the ‘line of fire’ understood that they would get little or no help from elsewhere they took matters into their own hands. Nowhere was that more true than among the passengers on United Airlines flight 93.

Paul Davies in “Chaos Frees the Universe,” published in New Scientist, October 6, 1990 wrote: “The ancient Greek [and Chinese, I might add] philosophers regarded the world as a battleground between the forces of order, producing cosmos, and those of disorder, which led to chaos.” Davies goes on to talk about chaos as a bridge between deterministic laws and the laws of chance. His implication is that the “Universe is genuinely creative and that the notion of free will is real.” Think about the passengers on United 93.

Gerald Bauer and Michael Klein edited A Chaotic Hierarchy, published in 1991. In their own included article, “Hierarchies of Dynamical Systems,” they say; “A widely accepted, yet only practical formulation defines chaos as a bounded steady-state behavior that is neither an equilibrium point, nor periodic nor quasi-periodic oscillation. Chaos is irregular. One of the main characteristics of chaos is sensitive dependence on initial conditions. ” People familiar with the popularization of chaos theory at the end of the last century will readily recall the ‘butterfly effect,’ the notion something small like the flap of a butterfly’s wings somewhere in the world can have significant effect on weather elsewhere in the world; or, perhaps not. Think about the lack of effect of the Phoenix Memorandum.

John E. Whiteford Boyle, The Indra Web, 1983, said this: “When the 20th century opened, man still believed as had his ancestors for 25 odd centuries, that a principle of order underlies his world. With the end of this, the Seminal Century, the belief in a fundamental order no longer prevails. Theories of quantum physics and relativity indicate that, instead of order, chaos grounds the universe.” In this context, think about the end of the Cold War and the ‘peace dividend.’

More practically, and directly relevant to the events of September 11, 2001, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary,1976, provides this alternate definition of Chaos (L, fm Greek) “A state of utter confusion completely wanting in order, sequence, organization or predictable operation.” And it is in that context that we will later examine the boundaries of the day and the self-organizational nodes of the day as people and organizations attempted to deal with the want of order.