In April 2002 I published an essay in National Review Online addressing the notion being spread by some conspiracy theorists that American Flight 77 did not hit the Pentagon, but that the damage to the building was done by a truck bomb, or a missile, or something else. I likened this theory to Holocaust denial, and offered the same substantiating counter-argument that survivors of the Nazi atrocities have made against the deniers – I was there. I saw it. End of debate.
Many people witnessed Flight 77 hit the building, particularly the commuters on Route 27 who saw the plane barrel in less than 500 feet away. My vantage point was farther out. I drove into work that morning with the top down on my car. It was a lovely late summer day, unusually so, a cloudless deep blue sky, perfect temperature, a rarity. I mentioned that when I got to the office at National Defense University. “What a great morning,” I said. It was the kind of day that made you glad to be alive.
As I wrote in 2002, “I was in my Washington office doing research when one of the secretaries told me that an aircraft had hit the World Trade Center. We brought the news up on the projection screen in our darkened conference room and watched the coverage, seeing endless six-foot high replays of the impacts and explosions. It was unsettling, even disorienting, but my colleagues and I were appraising it professionally, trading theories on who was to blame and how the terrorists coordinated the attacks. We did not come to any firm conclusions.
“I went back to my office around 9:20. A short time later a friend of mine called, an Air Force officer, and we spoke awhile about the strikes in New York. I was standing, looking out my large office window, which faces west and from six stories up has a commanding view of the Potomac and the Virginia heights. (When I hired on my boss said we had the best view in town. True, most days.) The Pentagon is about a mile and half distant in the center of the tableau. I was looking directly at it when the aircraft struck. The sight of the 757 diving in at an unrecoverable angle is frozen in my memory, but at the time, I did not immediately comprehend what I was witnessing. There was a silvery flash, an explosion, and a dark, mushroom shaped cloud rose over the building. I froze, gaping for a second until the sound of the detonation, a sharp pop at that distance, shook me out of it. I shouted something both extremely profane and sacrilegious and told my friend, ‘They hit the Pentagon. We’re under attack. Gotta go.’
“I hung up the phone and turned back to the window to see the dark cloud spreading. I yelled down the hall, ‘Look out the window!’ I heard gasps outside, and a researcher dashed into my office and stared. I grabbed my bags and said I was getting out of the building and invited others to do the same. I took the elevator down and walked to the edge of the greensward, in easy view of the Pentagon across the river. I set down my bags and stood in the dew soaked grass, seeing the brilliant blue sky filling with rolling clouds of smoke. The blackness stretched south the length of the horizon. The adrenaline of the initial shock had worn off a bit, and I was able to take in the enormity of the event. Even more than witnessing the plane crash, I remember those long helpless minutes standing in the grass.”
I got more hate mail from that essay than from anything I have ever written. There are still those who believe that a plane did not hit the Pentagon, or if one did that it was a different type of plane, or (my favorite) that it was an identical Boeing 757, and the real Flight 77 was shot down somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean. At some point Occam’s Razor ought to weed out the more absurd of these theories, yet they persist, particularly in the Middle East, aided by the internet and the strange susceptibility of some people to believe in this type of thing. Alternative theories about 9/11 will live forever with conspiracy tales about Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassination and the Moon landing. But after ten years in government service I can affirm one of John P. Roche’s laws, namely that those with the time to engage in conspiracies lack the talent, and those with the talent lack the time.