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September 11, when terrorists forcibly diverted two airline flights into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and a third plowed into the Pentagon, stunned surprise and inconsolable grief could be our only initial response. Then came an apprehension that will long be with us: how many other terrorist cells are still out there, and will we be able to find them in time?

But to many of those who have followed the scientific and technical side of warfare and terrorism, there was yet another jolt. It was comparable to the horror of the military analysts in December 1941 who had been expecting a Japanese preemptive strike in the Philippines or elsewhere in Asia, but not at Pearl Harbor. Assumptions were fatally wrong. Things were not supposed to be this way. We faced an old nightmare, not the futuristic dystopia of information warfare and massive chemical or biological attack that we had dreaded.

In the 1990s, as advanced systems triumphed in the Gulf War and the Nasdaq index began to soar, conflict was supposed to be going high tech. In December 1995, for example, a dozen Marine Corps generals and colonels, including the commandant, General Charles Krulak, visited the World Trade Center. They were studying how to master information overload by observing some of the top traders of the New York Mercantile Exchange practicing simulated commodity activity. Later, they conducted simulated combat exercises with 15 traders at advanced workstations on Governor’s Island off the southern tip of Manhattan. How could the images on those 69-centimeter monitors have warned them that less than six years later, the Twin Towers would become the battleground of a domestically launched air war?

Of course we feared attacks from the Middle East and elsewhere in the late 1990s. But the bad guys, we thought, were getting online, just like us. As the year 2000 approached, military and civilian authorities were on high alert, not only for accidental failures of vital systems but for cyberattacks using the date change as a smoke screen. Yet the nation’s pipelines and electrical grids survived the new year without incident. Even the powerful anti-U.S. emotions of the Kosovo war produced no serious assault on the U.S. infrastructure. Only too late did we realize what a cataclysm had been in preparation.

Our tragic mistake was not that we pursued the new. It was that we neglected the old. And it’s a pattern that could have troubling implications if we don’t recognize its applicability to other key parts of our technological culture.

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