More than 20 MIT experts in fields ranging from economics to airport security and structural engineering have made themselves available to the media over the last several weeks in response to a deluge of questions about Sept. 11. Following are some of their observations.
"You've been around for a while. You've never seen anything like this, right?" CNN anchor Jan Hopkins asked Institute Professor Emeritus Paul Samuelson in a Sept. 19 report. "No. We're in a new ballgame," replied the economist and Nobel laureate. "We're in a state of quasi-war, pseudo-war, but it's not a phony war that really doesn't exist.
"Before September 11, we were on the brink of a recession. My guess was that we would avoid it. I think it will be very difficult to say now that we're going to avoid a short-term recession."
Other impacts? "I wouldn't count on all of those tax cuts that were engineered for the year 2008, the year 2009. There will be some reneging necessarily on that."
Hopkins noted that the Federal Reserve is "in there pumping the system with money to get things going again" but added, "you're not confident that things will turn very quickly?"
Replied Samuelson: "I think [Alan Greenspan] is doing exactly the right thing now. But this new pseudo-war we're in is not going to be pouring out billions of dollars in the way that World War II did ... So any real comfortable syrup that I could give you would, I think, not be true to realistic economics based on economic history."
A global recession is also a strong possibility, according to economists interviewed for a Sept. 26 Washington Post story. "It's unavoidable. If we go down, everyone does," said Ford International Professor of Economics Rudiger Dornbusch.
"We're entering very uncharted waters," Professor Barry Posen of political science told the Boston Herald in a Sept. 14 story about fighting an elusive foe. "Who is the adversary? How do we attack them? ... What are the political means and ends that will galvanize and support our war effort once this immediate fervor dissipates?"
Posen and other experts interviewed by the Herald emphasized that the effort to win this war begins at home. "We have a significant fight to wage here and to wage it, we have to get our people ready for it."
Harvey Sapolsky, director of the Security Studies Program and a professor of political science, told writers of a Sept. 20 piece in the online magazine Salon that "the nation should brace for a long, protracted, and often secretive war against terrorism ... The first battle in that war must be won behind the scenes, through diplomacy. Most of it has to be police work, where you find terrorists and roll up the net on them. The difficulty of that is that it requires a lot of cooperation."
TOWARD BETTER SECURITY
Although researchers at the Federal Aviation Administration, MIT and other institutions are working on a variety of new systems for detecting bombs and other weapons at airports, some low-tech changes could also make a difference. "I'm thinking here particularly about [improving] the hand-screening of baggage," said Richard Lanza, a senior research scientist in nuclear engineering who works on detecting explosives. He made the comment during a Sept. 18 interview by Katie Couric of NBC's "Today" show.
Overall, Lanza emphasized a "completely layered" approach to security that includes serious work in both low- and high-tech systems. "I think we're going to just have to face the fact that airline travel isn't going to be like the old days anymore," he said. Passengers will have to put up with inconveniences related to security, and "people are certainly going to have to realize that security is not going to be cheap."
In an MIT Technology Review story on air safety put online Sept. 27, Professor John Hansman was asked if the hijackings could have been prevented. "No level of security I'm aware of in a free society would make an aircraft invulnerable, but clearly, we are looking to make the system more secure," said the professor of aeronautics and astronautics. He noted that it's "been 10 years since the last US hijacking. The flaw in the system was more at the intelligence level."
Several MIT engineers answered media queries about how the World Trade Centers collapsed (see essays on the subject distributed to media by the News Office).
Further, "many MIT faculty agree that the terrorists probably knew what they were doing," wrote Wade Roush in the Sept. 27 issue of MIT Technology Review. If the planes had hit higher, for example, "it's conceivable that the progressive failure would not have happened," said Oral Buyukozturk, a professor of civil and environmental engineering. "I wouldn't be surprised if they thought about the structural implications." The story noted that Osama bin Laden earned a degree in civil engineering from a university in Saudi Arabia.
It's OK to watch TV and other entertainments in the midst of a tragedy, according to one MIT professor interviewed for a Sept. 23 Boston Globe story. "I've gotten very frustrated reading these various attacks on the entertainment industry, as if in a time of war, entertainment is trivial, entertainment is superfluous--we won't ever want to watch movies or video games or television shows again," said Professor Henry Jenkins, director of the Program in Comparative Media Studies.
"History tells us quite the opposite. During times of national crisis, entertainment plays a vital function ... It's that human connection we have to hold onto, and that human connection includes laughter and pleasure as much as it includes sorrow and mourning and loss."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 3, 2001.