in The Weekly on February 5, 2009
BACK IN INAUGURATION
"What do predictions and foreknowledge of future events indicate, but that such future events are shown, pointed out, portended, and foretold to us?" wondered Cicero. And frankly, if history is so linear, why can't we keep a regression running that takes us to the last syllable of recorded time?
The Federal Aviation Administration uses "ingestion" as a technical term to explain what happens when a jet engine eats a bird. The Thursday before the 56th presidential inauguration showed us that this can be a messy and harrowing event. And the FAA knew about the danger. In fact, it dedicates substantial energy to predicting and averting similar cases. But a poorly-placed bird and a hungry engine results in loss of flight. The threats on the ground vary like topography (deer, alligators, laughing gulls, sparrows; tall grasses, mangrove swamps, dusty deserts) and this forces the development of techniques to foresee and cope with these dangers. Airports have absorbed their own practice of augury, that is, the taking and interpreting of signs from nature in order to determine the safety of a take-off.
The art of augury, like that of the inaugural address, requires an ideal plot of high ground to read the signs, or speech from. A kind of air-traffic control outpost. Augury is a science of auspicious beginnings that is traditionally reserved for events affecting society as a whole: transitions between the highest public officials or actions affecting the safety of the country; launching into flight over a crisis or piloting a crashing Airbus A320 to safety.
Inauguration consists of "the action of inaugurating; formal induction, institution, or ushering in, with auspicious ceremonies." These ceremonies require the reading of auspices or bird movements; they are a security checkpoint where the American psyche decides if it is interpreting a surefire symbol of hope or one of doom. Today, the narrative is found beneath a rousing speech in the tradition of Cicero that confirms our suspicions or denies our fears. In history, inevitability is in the details. So avoid them at all costs when talking about the future.
For the type of augury practiced at airports, it's the birds that are the most troubling, responsible for some 0 million in damage every year like a band of malicious, poorly organized anarchists. To manage the aviation hazard known as "birdstrike," There are two Wildlife Assessment zones that encircle every airport, reaching for miles beyond the runways.
Wildlife Hazard Management Plans, outlined by the FAA, are specific to their environments. They use a combination of Habitat Modification (grass studies, earthworm control and rodent control) and more elaborate Harassment Techniques (air cannons, lasers to scare birds off ponds and lakes, dogs to harass birds, use of effigies of owls and others to scare birds, research on pulsed landing lights to make aircraft more visible to birds, and at JFK there is even, according to the FAA, "a special shooting experiment") to ensure safety. If this science gives us pause, consider that an effigy is a rough model of a creature, frequently made to be damaged or destroyed as an expression of anger; the New Oxford American Dictionary offers, "the senator was burned in effigy" as an example. It is our attempt to communicate with the birds: "We will burn you; get off the runway."
Airports have even hired Joe Hunter and set him loose, armed with a shotgun and the knowledge that, at the runway's end, the readiness is all. So, to pilots, accelerating down the asphalt strip to the sky, there is a special providence in the FAA regulated fall of a sparrow, or in the emergency river landing of an Airbus.
ON THE HUDSON
Geese migrate in gaggles as a response to changes in food supply or weather. It's not really a lifestyle choice. On January 15, 2009 Canadian Geese, likely flying north in their characteristic V, crossed paths with the turbines of an Airbus A320 at 3:27 p.m. and 2,800 feet. They were, in FAA-speak, "ingested."
Moments after the "ingestion," captain Chesley Sullenberger III, once a scholar at the Berkeley Center for Catastrophic Risk Management and a Cold War pilot versed in combat against evil, spotted a small airport a few miles away in Teterboro, NJ. Calmly, he radioed that he was going to make an emergency landing. But by the time he radioed, the plane had dropped to 1,600 feet and without engines there was no chance of getting much farther.
Inside the plane, complete strangers held hands and people screamed or clutched their chests to their knees like the pamphlets tell you to. To Sullenberger, the Hudson was looking as solid as concrete. Someone got up to get their laptop from the overhead compartment. A software salesman looked out the window only to see the engine in flames and sent a text to his wife: "Planes on fire love you and the kids."
So Sullenberger decided to maneuver the Airbus, no longer truly flying, to a water landing on the Hudson. The plane skimmed the waves before slowing to the steady flow of the river. It began to sink. Passengers opened the emergency exits and, some of them in dress shoes, slipped across the wings to the inflatable yellow boats. A little girl onboard explained the miraculously smooth landing to her father: "Daddy, the plane turned into a boat."
According to Massachusetts Institute of Tecnology professor Arnold Barnett, who studies airline fatality, "it's more likely for a young child to be elected president in his or her lifetime than to die on a single jet flight in the USA." And we've all been reassured that air travel is safer than driving a car. (It's 22 times safer.)
"People will want to know: 'Why did it work this time?'" says Robert Benzon, the lead National Transportation Safety Board investigator in the matter. Benzon knows that to predict accurately requires skill and study - even if it's as simple as knowing which way a bird flies, which way to steer an A320, which way to lead the bald eagle. "This accident and this investigation is going to be studied for years and years and years" he said, promising us all that he will unwind it with science and careful study. Because 2,800 ft. above the Bronx, the stakes seem higher.
September 11 held us captive in our living rooms. Televisions everywhere glowed like lighted aquarium tanks full of fire and debris, or brimstone. The attacks, too horrible to be thought of as one single effort, burned the destructive possibility of commercial airlines into the public conscious. A media fixation that recreated the double collapse thousands of times in a single day magnified the effect. Transfixed, we watched the Twin Towers crumble so many times that it was as if the whole of Manhattan had become rubble.
The recurrent images hardwired the runaway airplane to a visceral place in our brains. They changed the cloud of associations called up by words like airplane or skyscraper adding fireball, implosion or collapse. They attached the symbols of daily life to a thread that suggested The End. Airplane is also a kind of missile, they said, this is a potentially explosive vacation. And collapse echoes through the stairwells when we think office - a connection only furthered by the pictures of dejected traders buried in scraps paper, the skeletal dust of the Dow Jones. Now add Goose, or flock to the list of symbols that spell out a prediction of doom.
September 11 cut out a piece of "American" and replaced it with "Terror" according to a negative patriotism that said we should temper our inalienable rights with the doctrine of suspect thy neighbor. Daily life shifted from the pursuit of happiness to the pursuit of safety. And our so-called freedom became a new promise. To be an American is, at some level, to lead a standardized life through obedient execution of an endless set of procedures.
Related to this fear of flight is the perception that unregulated planes will turn from vehicles to weapons, which, much like economies, means they will spiral dangerously - world threateningly - out of control. We try to keep them from doing so at any cost: grass studies, bird lasers, bailout packages, torture on an island that free citizens can't visit, hunters at airports sniping snowy owls or special lines of credit. The list of ways in which 9/11 has affected us goes on and on - some unimaginable, others as yet unfelt, and some still largely misunderstood.
& AIRPORT RITUALS
One way that 9/11 has effected us all is very familiar: quirky airport rituals.
In light of the crippling paranoia after 9/11, the FAA strove to increase airport safety by, in part, developing a set of procedures. The executive branch wields a tremendous amount of power in its ability to reshuffle bureaucracies, FAA included. While these procedures grow out of an explicit purpose, they also build 'safety' back into the experience of air travel. Long lines and police presence at O'Hare are a sort of public therapy.
Like making the sign of the cross, wearing a yarmulke or removing shoes five times daily, procedure, when it involves strict requirements and the whole population, approaches interchangeability with 'ritual' or 'tradition.' We forgo liquids while traveling and neatly arrange fluid items of less than 3 ounces in plastic baggies. We empty our pockets in plain sight. We prove who we are with a plastic card. We take off our belts for strangers. We even hold out our arms to be searched with a wand. All these requirements are part of the ritual to renew our faith in air travel: if we publicly walk across stone floors in socks, perhaps our plane will arrive safely; if we undergo enough procedure, perhaps we will expect and avoid undesirable futures.
Take, for example, the parallel universe of finance where the there is a desperate thirst for a predictable future, too. Here, cryptic symbols representing the future (derivatives, collateralized debt obligations, amortization, credit default swaps, insurance against the failure of any of these, insurance against the future, reassurance that we will make it there with a 401k) are handled by a group of specialists who read prosperity in this constellation of financial instruments. But to make prosperity legible in the stars one has to be sure that they will not change. And perhaps tomorrow the bear will grow horns and turn into a bull, perhaps the fluctuations of the Dow will auspiciously trace the outline of a bald eagle in 2009.
To call Obama's inauguration auspicious means that it is favorable, that it holds some promise for renewal. But closer to the roots, there's something in auspiciousness that 'betokens success;' it 'gives promise of a favorable issue;' it is 'kind' or 'conducive to success.' An auspicious beginning is one with otherworldly approval as read in the movements of birds. How could he not make history when he already has? Inevitable.
The last presidency began with a cataclysmic plane crash, so it seemed fitting that one should usher it out. That way there's a clear symbol marking a shift, offering us proof of change in the era of instant gratification. A potent signal that things are different today and will be better tomorrow.
As US Airways flight 1549 touched down with a big splash, an engine was ripped off and people at work in Manhattan's towers crammed up against the west windows with their camera phones. They were trying to figure out what was going on. Within minutes, the news was breaking everywhere, and that peculiar chaos activated airborne fears. Lauren Collins of The New Yorker explained it: "that the plane had been felled by the very creature of which it was supposed to be a simulacrum seemed beyond metaphor." How could something as arbitrary as a flock of birds have the same effect as Terror? The question was troubling.
RECIPE FOR A SAVIOR STORY
If, in our search for this potent signal of change, we had to rewrite an old symbol or a little bit of history to find a hero: so be it. Enter Chesley Sullenberger: flecked with an aptitude for 'Risk Management' or maybe divinity, Sullenberger waits for confirmation of technical heroism in the hours following the crash and rescue. The plane is mostly intact. The missing engine shows "dents on the spinner and cowling inlet lip" with just a few signs of "soft-body damage." There's a trace of "organic material" dangling from a turbine blade.
When the announcement is official, laude Sullenberger as hero. He faithfully executed his promise "to apply the most effective methods ... to achieve the highest levels of safety, performance and reliability" as though it were nothing more than the product of good judgment and training. Sullenberger was just another businessman from his safety brokerage, Safety Reliability Methods, Inc. He was just peddling his wares, and, when the time comes he makes the pilgrimage downstage to inauguration in Washington, DC. Add crowd. Smudge Sullenberger into crowd.
Barack Obama, community organizer, religious family man and junior statesman from Illinois, emerges from the crowd, from that obscure and mythic place where American leaders take shape. He drops the '-elect,' takes the oath, and names the "fear that America's decline is inevitable" but reassures us with Americans' "willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves;" all of it just five days after the A320 splashes into the Hudson. He pours hope into the news trough, which dipped like the Dow between Election day and Inauguration: Gaza and Israel, busy scratching raw a familiar political scab, grew auspiciously peaceful in the days before the inauguration. The White House gleamed. Inside, a burned Bush spoke with Obama before taking to the skies in a big metal bird. And with so few stories that articulated the desired outcome of this democratic choice, the public was wild with hunger for signs of change.