Amanda Ripley

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Feds have a Habit of (Re)Traumatizing NYC

28th Apr 2009 posted in Disaster Behavior

Five months after 9/11, two military jets shrieked across the scarred island of Manhattan at 4:30 am. I remember it well. My eyes jerked open, as the windows, the dishes, and my heart shook in place in my tiny Upper West Side apartment. Then I did what we always did those days whenever weird things happened: I went into the other room and turned on CNN. I waited for my editor to call and send me downtown, just as he had on 9/11. But nothing happened. I waited and waited, watching the ladies sell shiny earrings on the shopping network until sunrise.

It turned out that it was all a mistake—whoops!—two F-16s returning from a routine patrol, the newspapers said the next day. I was pissed. To this day, I would love to get those air jockeys in a room and explain the implications of ripping several million people from sleep back into the daylight of our collective trauma. Bravo Zulu.

Actually, that room I’ve got reserved for this fantasy rant has been filling up ever since. Yesterday’s idiotic flyover by the backup Air Force One jet was possibly the most boneheaded maneuver, but the competition is fierce (see short list below).

What is it about the FAA or the military or the Gods that allows this to keep happening? How can people repeatedly fail to understand what it does to a population to replay the very sounds and sights that accompanied a slaughter of thousands in the not so distant past? What is hard about this?

Perhaps the most alarming thing about the Air Force One fiasco was that it was planned and announced in advance to several agencies—with an order to keep it SECRET. This, to me, stinks to holy hell. I have talked a lot in the past about people in charge not trusting the public—and the devastation that follows. This is a classic bureaucratic move.

But I’d still love to hear the justification. What? Were they worried someone would shoot down a backup Air Force One jet—that wasn’t carrying the president? That seems like a risk worth taking, friends. Instead, what could have been a lovely publicity moment—carefully announced in advance via NYC’s high-saturation media outlets and email alert system—turned into an honest-to-God trauma for many, many people. People whose brains are wired to respond to every flyover as if it is an act of war, because that’s just how the brain works.

Let’s hope we don’t have to add to this hall of shame for a long while:

1. April 27, 2009: Backup Air Force One jet buzzes the Statue of Libery’s left ear and loops around a couple more times as photographers aboard an accompanying F-16 take snapshots. “Defies imagination,” says Mayor Bloomberg.

2. October 3, 2004: Two massive Marine Corps C-130 transport planes buzz the Statue of Libery and Ground Zero around 2:30 pm, with clearance from local air-traffic controllers.

3. May 14, 2003: A Continental Airlines jumbo jet carrying troops home from Iraq buzzes the Statue of Liberty before veering into the center of midtown Manhattan at 8:30 in the morning. Says Bloomberg, who had been given only a two-minute warning from the FAA, “One would expect a little more concern, sensitivity and notice.”

4. Feb. 18, 2002: Two Air Force F-16s buzz Manhattan at 4:30 am. Shortly afterward, both pilots are shipped back to their home base in Texas.