From that day forward, they were just called The Attacks. Nobody on the planet had the slightest doubt what you were referring to if you said those two words.
—-A historian writing in 2050
It was June 19th, 2070 the fiftieth anniversary of the attacks. I was sitting in a bar in Cape Town, nursing a Windhoek, a beer brewed in Namibia. I had discovered that it was better than Castle, the local beer, in the two weeks I had been in South Africa. I was on vacation, if you could call it that. People go on vacation to get away from their work. I had been retired for several years, so I wasn’t trying to get away from work. I was trying to get away from something else; the empty house in California. My wife Jean had died a year earlier, and the house was dark and gloomy without her cheerful countenance.
She finally gave up the fight after years of treatments for leukemia, the result of the radiation dose that she got back in 2020. She was working for United Airlines at O’Hare airport in Chicago when the bomb went off. A small nuclear device, if you can call the equivalent of 5 thousand tons of TNT small. She wasn’t close to Ground Zero. In fact, she did not even know for a couple days that she had absorbed Prompt Gamma from the explosion.
Jean was a resolute person, and she fought it, didn’t let it get her down. But after nearly fifty years, it finally got her. Amazing that she made it into her seventies. A lot of people who got a dose that day didn’t make it that far. The fifteen nukes that the terrorists detonated around the world that day killed about a hundred thousand people instantly, but a lot more died over the next few years from the effects of the radiation.
Most of the bombs targeted airports in the US and Europe. The terrorist group responsible for the attacks was known by various names. Western media usually called them Islamic State, or ISIS for short. Muslims called them Daesh, a somewhat derogatory term. Their goal was threefold: To kill as many infidels and apostates as possible, to disrupt the world economy, and to arouse a massive military response that would trigger a worldwide confrontation between Islamic and Christian countries. It would start World War III.
The attacks were carefully planned to take place simultaneously so that nobody would have any advance warning. The vehicles used to transport the devices were ordinary looking delivery vans that supplied the various facilities, mostly restaurants. They were modified to conceal the bomb beneath the floor so that it was undetectable by security scans. Later efforts to figure out how it was done were futile. The vehicles were vaporized by the fireball, so no evidence remained.
The effect on economic activity was immediate and catastrophic. Stock markets plunged and plunged. Three fourths of the total market capitalization evaporated in the week following the attacks. Of course, all air travel was suspended, and when it was finally restored a month later, traffic was a small fraction of what it had been. That was due not only to the damage at fifteen major terminals, but also to the fact that people were not traveling. They were hunkering down, staying at home, venturing out as little as possible…a worldwide pandemic of agoraphobia. People were understandably afraid.
I remember the day when it happened. I was at home. It was evening, and Jean had drawn the night shift, so she was at work. I was on the computer when the news of the attacks came in. I immediately picked up the phone and called her. Miraculously, the call went through, and she picked it up.
I said, “What’s happening? I just saw something about an explosion at the airport.”
Her voice was shaky. “Yeah, I don’t know. There was a loud BANG and there was the sound of glass breaking. The whole building was shaking. A minute later, a PA announcement came on…wait…here it comes again…listen.” She held the phone up so I could hear it.
“ATTENTION! THERE HAS BEEN AN EXPLOSION AT THE AIRPORT. AT THIS TIME WE DO NOT HAVE ANY INFORMATION AS TO THE CAUSE. ALL FLIGHT OPERATIONS HAVE BEEN SUSPENDED. INCOMING FLIGHTS HAVE BEEN DIVERTED. PLEASE REMAIN SEATED AND WAIT FOR FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS. DO NOT TRY TO LEAVE THE AIRPORT AT THIS TIME. REPEAT: DO NOT TRY TO LEAVE THE AIRPORT AT THIS TIME. YOU WILL BE INFORMED WHEN IT IS SAFE TO LEAVE.”
“Did you hear that?”
“Yeah, I heard it. What can you see? Any smoke or debris?”
“A little smoke, but nothing much. We are just sitting here, waiting for somebody to tell us what is going on.”
And then the phone went dead, and I was unable to call her again that night.
I went to bed, but did not sleep for a long time. Finally, about four in the morning, she arrived. I got up when she came in, but she held up a hand.
“I am so exhausted! I have to go to bed. I will tell you all about it in the morning.”
I was in my twenties at the time. Born in 1998, I was only three years old when the Twin Towers went down. That was the beginning. There had been terrorist attacks before that, but the World Trade Center attacks were the first large-scale operation launched by a terrorist group. The subsequent US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were viewed by many Muslims as foreign defilement of sacred Arab land. It was a marvelous recruiting tool for terrorist groups who could use European colonial oppression, American imperialism and the Islamic fear and hatred of “infidels” to lure devout and impressionable young men into their ranks. Initially, their efforts were mostly regional, but as their wealth and power grew, they raised their goals, seeking to create a worldwide Caliphate. They openly declared that they intended to convert the entire world to Islam.
That’s what we thought, anyway. We learned later that their real goal was eschatological. Like many Christian fundamentalists, they thought that we had entered the End Times, when God or Allah would destroy the earth and everything on it. All the heathens or infidels, depending on which side you were on, would end up in Hell, and only the faithful would be saved, to spend their time in Heaven if they were Christian, or Paradise if Muslim. The real intent of the attacks was to arouse the infidel West to massive military action, to trigger World War III, with widespread use of real nuclear weapons, intercontinental ballistic missiles with their megaton warheads that dwarfed the little suitcase bombs the terrorists had used. If that happened, the End of the World, as far as humans and most other life forms were concerned, would be assured.
They had assumed there would be immediate retaliatory attacks, and had dispersed themselves into the densely-packed cities of Iraq and Syria. The only way they could be killed was by causing huge “collateral damage.” The residents of those conquered cities had become hostages. In order to kill a hundred thousand terrorists, millions of innocents would die as well. That would radicalize the whole world of Islam, and worldwide conflict would be inevitable.
Instead, there was an ominous silence from the West. Right Wing pundits in the media were screaming for massive retaliation, including the use of nuclear weapons. It didn’t happen. There was a lot of consultation going on between the great military powers, including China, Russia, the US and most European countries. The UN was convened in emergency session to consider what action should be taken. It appeared that the military and political leaders were not talking to each other. The collective world held its breath.
Muslims in the US and Europe were as fearful as everyone else about the terrorists, but they had an additional reason to be afraid. Islamophobia, the fear and hostility toward all Muslims, had skyrocketed. They were afraid to go out on the streets. They were threatened by thugs and pointed at by many people who should have known better. Some women violated their faith by removing their hijab. Muslim men shaved their beards. They wanted to be invisible.
Muslim leaders knew something had to be done to defuse the growing alienation of their flock. They held conferences to discuss the matter, and coordinated with Imams from all over the world. They issued a worldwide fatwa against the terrorists, declaring that their atrocities violated the Koran and insulted Islam. The terrorists were all condemned to death.
Although some countries did not pursue the fatwa actively, it did have an immediate effect on ISIS recruiting. Devout young men now had a significant deterrent. There were even some defections. Of course, ISIS condemned the fatwa, declaring that it was the product of apostates, and therefore invalid. A geographical split was forming in Islam over the fatwa. Most Muslims in Western nations supported it, but many in Middle Eastern nations condemned it.
Another more ominous trend for Islam emerged. Some believers quietly quit practicing their faith. Apostasy was viewed by many Muslims as a crime punishable by death. Nevertheless, a growing number decided that their religion was destructive and divisive. The same trend was much further advanced, of course, among Christians. Islam was following a well-worn path toward a secular society.
Meanwhile, the West had a problem. Uprooting ISIS was going to be a long and costly process. They were embedded in Iraqi cities. A major military effort to eradicate them would cost the lives of many soldiers, and untold numbers of innocent civilians. What to do?
In a research lab in California’s Silicon Valley, work on a new energy storage device had been progressing slowly. Development of a promising new device using carbon nanotubes had bogged down. One night, a researcher accidentally introduced some powdered sulfur into the mix and the result was strange. The device they were working on was a capacitor, a passive electronic component that stored energy in an electric field between two conductive plates separated by an insulator. The sulfur seemed to have created a short circuit. The test charge just seemed to disappear. On a hunch, the researcher left the charger connected and went out to lunch. When he came back the device was still not charged but a very small voltage had accumulated. Excited now, the researcher called his colleagues over and showed them what was happening. If the charge continued to accumulate, what they had created was a truly huge capacitor, capable of storing an immense amount of energy. They left it charging overnight with a recorder that took a sample reading every five minutes.
The next morning, the voltage was up to ten volts and still rising. A quick calculation showed that the device had stored an amount of energy, over a hundred times greater than any previous device they had constructed. They let it continue to charge until finally, at 27.96 volts, it failed with a small explosion as the accumulated energy was released in the arc across the plates. The heat damaged the lab bench where the apparatus was sitting.
The failure was not unexpected. They had deliberately let it continue to charge to find the breakdown voltage. Now they had a handle on the potential storage capacity of the device, and it was huge. A quick calculation showed that a scaled-up device weighing no more than a hundred pounds could store 100 kilowatt hours of energy…enough to drive an electric vehicle over three hundred miles. This was the breakthrough that was needed to make electric vehicles a practical replacement for gasoline-powered vehicles. They decided to call it a megacapacitor. There was one caveat: How much would they cost to produce?
A development engineer in a research lab in Massachusetts saw the news and immediately went to his boss.
“I think we may have a solution to our problem,” he announced.
He was working on a Navy development contract to produce a portable laser weapon. The biggest problem was storing the huge amount of energy required to fire the laser in a small enough package to be portable. The megacapacitor could be the answer.
The price on megacapacitors remained high for several years, making them impractical for mass-produced cars, but for military weapons that was not a problem. Six months later, after successful field tests, a small drone aircraft was fitted with a laser weapon powered by megacapacitors. The plane was aptly named: “Assassin.”
Flying at three to five thousand feet, the drone pilot, sitting at his computer in Omaha or wherever, could scan the terrain below the drone through a powerful telescopic sight. When a target was identified, a push of a button sent a powerful laser burst. Traveling at the speed of light, it reached the target in a few microseconds. The beam was very small, approximately the diameter of a pencil, and lasted only a fraction of a second, but in that instant, it could drill a hole in a human skull and burn deep into the brain, instantly destroying surrounding brain cells, and creating a pressure spike that destroyed many more. The targeted individual was instantly rendered unconscious, and then descended into a deep coma. Death usually followed within minutes.
This was the antiterrorist weapon that the military had been seeking for years, and they wasted no time in deploying it in terrorist strongholds in the Middle East. The President was briefed during the development. He saw immediately that the need for massive invasions and door-to-door urban warfare was no longer needed, but he foresaw a problem. This must be kept out of terrorist hands. Unmanned drones were often shot down by anti-aircraft missiles. If they were able to analyze the wreckage, they might be able to replicate it. How could that be prevented?
The solution was a sophisticated self-destruct system in the drone that could be triggered by the drone pilot, or if contact were lost, the drone would destroy itself. The charges were designed to blast the laser weapon into tiny bits of shrapnel. Nothing would remain that would give anyone a clue as to what it was or how it worked.
The first few attacks were confounding to the terrorists. The drones were small and hard to see with wingspan of only ten feet. Their propulsion systems were nearly silent. By the time they figured it out, several of their top leaders had been eliminated.
When they finally identified the drones as the source of the attacks, leaders stayed indoors, out of sight during the day. Then they installed an anti-drone missile system, and destroyed a few drones patrolling over their headquarters. This was fine with the drone owners. They were cheap to build, and they flooded the skies with them. The missiles were much more expensive to produce and deploy. It was an economic game of attrition, and meanwhile the West was shutting down funding sources for the terrorists. This was a game the terrorists were not going to win.
The drones were now everywhere, saturating the air above most Muslim cities. Attacks were expanded to include anyone who even looked like a terrorist. Innocent civilians were killed by errant drone attacks occasionally, but the majority of Muslims did not oppose the drones. They had seen the results of the nuclear attacks all over the world, and were horrified. The tide seemed to be turning against the terrorists.
In a secret lab on the outskirts of Beirut, a group of scientists was working to reverse that tide. They had managed to obtain a nearly intact drone that had crashed without activating the self-destruct system. It did not take long for them to disassemble the laser and understand the principle of its operation. But there were problems.
“We could build this easily,” said the leader of the group, “but the energy storage device is not so simple. Also, the software that controls the active lens system needs to be figured out.”
This was a very perceptive comment. The farther a laser beam travels, the more it spreads out. At 1000 meters, it would be huge…and worthless as a weapon…unless it could be controlled and contained so that the energy in the beam was focused. The design featured a movable lens system controlled by a microcomputer to keep the beam focused. It was the most sophisticated feature of the weapon.
The same had been true of nuclear weapons in the beginning. The scientists who manned the Manhattan Project had developed technologies to produce the fissile material, and the design of the weapon that used explosive charges to drive the segments of the material together to achieve critical mass. Other groups, especially in Germany were working on the same technology. It was a race, and the US won.
But that technology lead only persisted until others caught up. Before long, the Soviets, with the help of some spies, caught up with us, and the result was the Cold War and the era of Mutually Assured Destruction.
Now, the danger was that terrorists would obtain this new technology and flood the air over US and European cities with laser weapons, killing anyone who ventured out into the open.
For the moment, the West had the technological edge, but how long would it last? What was the best counter-strategy to maintain the edge? Work on drone defense systems, possibly using the same laser technology? Or try to develop an even more powerful anti-personnel weapon? It was the eternal struggle in weapons technologies…built a better bullet and the enemy builds better armor plate. Develop a sophisticated battlefield communications system, and the enemy develops a blocking device. An endless rat race and a bottomless pit to absorb a nation’s resources.
Sometimes I wonder if the events on earth are giving us a clue why the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has been unsuccessful. If there are other intelligent species inhabiting planets in the Cosmos, could it be that all of those that are close enough to generate discernable signals have annihilated themselves? Is the result of the process of Natural Selection always a competitive and aggressive species that uses its intelligence to build more and more lethal and destructive weapons until finally they have a war with no survivors?
I waved my empty Windhoek bottle at the bartender. This was going to be a two bottle night…at least.
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