03/08/2012 - 13:41

3/11 and 9/11: Codes for tragedy

Dawn Stover

Dawn Stover

Stover is a science writer based in the Pacific Northwest and is a contributing editor at the Bulletin. Her work has appeared in ...

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For most Americans, 3/11 has no particular significance. (Hint: it's not that rock band from Omaha.) Some Europeans associate it with the Madrid train bombings of March 11, 2004. But, in Japan, 3/11 is universally recognized as shorthand for the events of March 11, 2011, when a huge offshore earthquake triggered a tsunami that devastated the country's northeastern coast and swamped emergency cooling systems at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. Like 9/11 in the United States, 3/11 is code for a tragedy of epic proportions.

At first glance, a natural disaster may not seem all that much like a terrorist attack. But 3/11 and 9/11 are sometimes strikingly similar:

A universal language. Although some people in the United States refer to the catastrophe of one year ago as "Fukushima," 3/11 was much bigger than a single nuclear power plant or even a single prefecture. Likewise, 9/11 was bigger than the World Trade Center or New York City. These events profoundly affected huge numbers of people throughout each nation and captured the attention of the entire world. It's no coincidence that both have been christened with short numbers that can be easily understood in any language.

Although the labels 3/11 and 9/11 emphasize the singularity of these events and assign them to specific dates, they are also abstract enough to represent -- in totality -- a complicated series of events that unfolded over many hours, days, and weeks. A lot of things went wrong, in succession, and the repercussions of both 3/11 and 9/11 are still being felt today. A year after the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns, we don't yet know the full extent of the damage, and new estimates of the radioactive fallout continue to emerge. And more than a decade after 9/11, we still don't know the extent of the physical ailments that first-responders, among others, are living with after inhaling that day's wrath.

Ignoring the unthinkable. Although many politicians have characterized 3/11 and 9/11 as bizarre, near-impossible events that could not have been foreseen, in both cases there were clear but unheeded warnings. In the months before 9/11, flight instructors and an FBI agent had raised concerns about students at flight schools. An August 6, 2001, daily brief from the CIA to President George W. Bush, headlined "Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US," presaged that "his followers would follow the example of World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef" and mentioned a report that Osama bin Laden "wanted to hijack a US aircraft."

In the case of 3/11, the nuclear plant's operators ignored scientific studies showing that the risks of a tsunami had been dramatically underestimated. Japan's "safety culture," which asserted that accidents were impossible, prevented regulators from taking a hard look at whether emergency safety systems would function properly in a tsunami-caused station blackout. Greater attention to the potential dangers would not have prevented the earthquake and tsunami, of course, but increased attention to safety could have gone a long way toward reducing the number of lives lost and toward preventing any radioactive releases.

Communications breakdown. Both 3/11 and 9/11 highlighted weaknesses in government responses to national emergencies. In the United States on 9/11, air-traffic controllers struggled to understand what was happening, and the Federal Aviation Administration did not notify the North American Aerospace Defense Command in time to scramble fighter jets to intercept the hijacked aircraft. For seven long minutes after being informed that the United States was under attack, President Bush continued reading The Pet Goat with schoolchildren at a staged event in Florida; he later flew to Air Force bases in Louisiana and Nebraska before returning to Washington. In Japan on 3/11, the prime minister and Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Company) executives seemed to have little certainty about what was taking place in Fukushima, and there was disagreement about who was in charge. At one point, government officials even considered evacuating Tokyo. In the aftermath of the tsunami, the manager of the Fukushima power plant ignored orders from Tepco headquarters and used seawater to cool the damaged reactors, an action that probably helped prevent the disaster from becoming even worse. These responses highlighted the need for better communications infrastructure and emergency planning in both countries.

First-responders. Although government officials often withhold information from the public because they fear mass panic, studies show that ordinary people usually behave rationally and admirably during an emergency. While panicked officials in Tokyo and Washington were paralyzed by indecision, evacuations from the area surrounding Fukushima Daiichi and from the World Trade Center towers proceeded in an orderly fashion.

Both events reminded the world of the sacrifices made by workers who struggled to save the lives of others even as their own lives, and those of their families, were threatened: the police and firefighters of New York City whose rescue efforts saved many lives on 9/11 and the plant workers who did not leave their posts at the stricken Fukushima power plant, heroes all. Events such as 3/11 and 9/11 often bring out the best in people and unite nations, however briefly.

Loss of trust. Catastrophic events tend to shake the public's confidence in government, especially when government has shirked its duty to protect citizens from harm. Sometimes the distrust goes so far as to spawn conspiracy theories. For example, 9/11 "truthers" believe that the US government was responsible for, or knowingly complicit in, the hijackers' attacks. Perhaps not surprisingly, 3/11 has given rise to a new group of truthers who subscribe to a tortured plot in which there was no actual earthquake damage, and the tsunami was instead caused by a nuclear weapon detonated offshore by Israel to punish Japan for offering to enrich uranium for Iran.

Experts like Patrick Leman, a psychologist at the University of London, explain conspiracy theories as a coping mechanism that helps people make sense of complex events and their causes. It's easier to blame corrupt officials than to accept the fact that natural disasters, nuclear accidents, and terrorist attacks will never be entirely preventable. Most of us know that even the best airport scanners, passive reactor-cooling systems, and seismic computer models are not perfect. 3/11 and 9/11 remind us that, even in the most modern of societies, we all live with a certain amount of risk that is beyond our personal control.

Better than before. By focusing needed attention on threats to our existence, 3/11 and 9/11 have brought about some positive changes. The nuclear disaster in Japan has alerted nuclear regulators and operators around the world to the vulnerabilities of nuclear power plant cooling systems and will inevitably lead to better standards for safety and siting -- and perhaps even lend a new urgency to the problem of spent fuel. Likewise, 9/11 resulted in new security measures and intelligence reforms that have thus far prevented another major terrorist attack in the United States and have created additional safeguards for nuclear materials.

Although 3/11 had little direct effect on the health and safety of Americans, we will be the beneficiaries of the lessons learned from it. And so, as we commemorate the anniversary of 3/11 this Sunday, let us not forget the tens of thousands of Japanese evacuees who still cannot return home, the 15,854 lives taken, or the 3,274 who remain missing. There were more than six times as many lives lost on 3/11 in Japan than there were on that other terrible day in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania that we Americans know as 9/11.