Following the September 11th attack, government authorities
declared that the weapons used to hijack the planes
that crashed into World Trade Center were plastic knives
and box cutters. The story about plastic knives and
box cutters, implements which passengers then were not
legally restricted from bring through security checkpoints
at airports, was relentlessly drummed into the public's
mind by two of the highest officials in the government.
John Ashcroft, the attorney general, Donald Rumsfeld,
the Secretary of Defense.
Ashcroft told ABC News on September 15th that "investigators
believed that each of the commandeered planes had been
hijacked by groups of three to six men armed with box
cutters and plastic knives." Donald Rumsfeld told
Fox News on September 16th, that the hijackers used
weapons that are distinctively different - - plastic
knives." On October 9th, he suggested to Dan Rather
on CBS News "plastic knives and the use of a U.S.
airliner filled with American people as a missile [were
used] to destroy a World Trade Center." On November
7th, he described to Jim Lehrer on PBS " One of
our planes is used as a missile to fly into our building
and into the World Trade Center. It was beyond one's
imagination that plastic knives and our own commercial
aircraft filled with our own people would be used as
the implement of war."
Actually, it was their imagination, not established
facts, that informed the world that the hijackers had
used plastic knives and box cutters to commandeer the
two airliners that had destroyed the twin towers of
the World Trade Center. Not a scintilla of evidence
had been found then or to date that either
plastic knives or box cutters were used by any of the
ten hijackers who crashed United Airlines flight 175
and American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade
Center. No box cutters or plastic knives were found
in the debris. Nor were the cockpit voice recorders
ever found from Flight 11 and Flight 175. No witnesses,
either passengers or crew members, on either flight
11 or flight 175 ever reported any hijacker having a
box cutter or a plastic knife.
Both United Airlines flight 175 and American Airlines
Flight 11 had departed from Boston. Once both Boeing
767s had reached their cruising altitudes, the hijackers
took control of them by unknown means without any of
the four pilots warning the ground controllers, even
though they had open radios. Both airliners then turned
off their transponders and disappeared from the computerized
No message was ever received from flight 175 that mentioned
any weapons. So, for all anyone knows, the hijackers
may have used guns, grenades, poison gas or any other
An executive summary of an unpublished FAA
"At approximately 9:18 am, it was reported that
two crew members in the cockpit were stabbed. The flight
then descended with no communications from the flight
crew members. The American Airlines FAA Principal Security
Inspector (PFI) was notified by Suzanne Clark of American
airlines Corporate Headquarters that an on board flight
attendant contacted American Airlines Operation Center
and informed that a passenger located in seat 10B shot
and killed a passenger in 9B at 9:20 am. The passenger
killed was Daniel Lewin shot by Satam al-Suqama. One
bullet was reported to have been fired."
The information came from two cell phone calls made
by flight attendants, Betty Ong and Madeline Amy Sweeney,
to Americal Airlines ground controllers. Ong, who was
in the first class compartment and the only witness
to the assault on the cockpit. She reported that she
had seen four hijackers come from first-class seats,
kill a passenger seated behind them, and use a chemical
weapon which she described as "some sort of spray"
that made her eyes burn and made it difficult for her
to breathe." Madeline Amy Sweeney, the flight attendant
in the rear compartment, call was not recorded. According
to the ground controller, she said that the pilots,
another flight attendant and a passenger had been stabbed
The FAA subsequently said that the report of a gun shot
was an error proceeding from a "miscommunication".
The ground controller did not recall a gun shot or a
bullet being mentioned.
In any case, there were no box cutters or plastics knives
on flight 11 were used.
Two other flights were hijacked that morning, American
Airlines flight 77, a Boeing 757 departing from Virginia,
and United Airlines Flight 93, a Boeing 757 departing
from Newark. On flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon,
one single passenger, Barbara Olsen, reported on weapons
that some of the five hijackers had in the back of the
plane. She told her husband, Theodore Olsen, on a cell
phone that the hijackers who herded her and other the
passengers into the back of the plane had two kind of
weapons: knives and cardboard cutters (presumably box
cutters). She did not say anything about the other hijackers
in the cockpit and she apparently did not even know
that they were piloting the plane. Nor did any other
passenger or crew member on Flight 77 describe the hijackers'
weapons. It cannot be assumed that all the hijackers
on the plane had similar weapons. The hijackers assaulting
the cockpit might have needed more sophisticated weaponry
to rapidly stun or kill the pilots.
On flight 93, the Boeing 757 which crashed near Pittsburgh,
the flight attendant reported over a cell phone that
a hijacker in her plane had a "bomb strapped on."
Some unidentified person also said over the loud speaker
that there was a "bomb" aboard the plane.
A passenger, Todd Beamer, talked over a cell phone about
the "terrorist with a bomb." Another passenger,
Tom Burnett, told his wife over a cell phone that he
had heard that a pilot had been "knifed."
No passenger or crew member described either box cutters
or plastic knives as weapons and, as far as is known,
no box cutters of plastic knives been recovered from
Similar weapons thus were not reported in the different
flights. A paralytic chemical spray was described in
the front compartment of flight 11, knives and card
cutters was described in the rear compartment of Flight
77 and a bomb was described on flight 93. Nor is there
any reason to assume that different hijackers on different
planes leaving from different airports would use the
same weaponry. Atta and Alomari, for example, having
made a detour to Portland, might have obtained weapons
unavailable to the hijackers in Virginia and New Jersey.)
In any case, the Ashcroft's story that the hijackers
used box-cutters and plastic knives in the attack on
the World Trade Center is a functional fictoid. In this
case, the function was diversion. This fictoid serves
to divert public attentions from the responsibility,
and legal liability, of the government and airlines
to prevent major weapons such as guns, bombs,
chemical sprays and hunting knives from being carried
aboard airplanes. If such illegal devices had been smuggled
aboard the planes, the liability could amount to billions
of dollars. If, , on the other hand, it could be disseminated
that the hijackers had only used plastic knives, such
as those provided by the airlines for meals, or box
cutters, which were allowed on planes, neither the airlines,
the screeners at the airport, or the FAA, which regulates
the safety of airports, could be held legally responsible.
Paul Pillar, who had headed the CIA's counter-terrorism,
could thus explain that"the attack that killed
almost 4,000 people used box cutters." This press
accepted it as established fact. The New York Times,
for example, reported "the hijackers did not use
firearms, which would probably have been detected, but
apparently wielded box-cutter knives of the type that
were then allowed on board but are now banned."
What made the box cutter and and plastic knives fictoid
particularly welcome was that the FAA had found massive
failures of airport screeners to find weapons prior
to the attacks. Such tests were conducted by FAA undercover
"Red Teams." In 1998, for example, one FAA
Read team leader told the New York Times, "we were
successful in getting major weapons guns and bombs--aboard
planes at least 85 percent the time." The failure
rate was as high as 97 percent at some airports. Nor
was this vulnerability corrected before September 11th.
FAA Special Agent Bogdan Dzakovic, according to USA
TODAY, said that FAA officials had ignored security
problems before the terrorist attacks.
The fictoid successfully deflected from this gaping
hole in security.