Trim Tabs and the Towers: A 15 year retrospective

Fifteen years ago, the towers fell. Ten years later, I wrote this essay about the idea of trim tabs, how they work on airplanes, and how they work in organizations. Specifically, I wanted to talk about how the idea applied in the aftermath to 9/11. In the five years since, nothing much has changed. Nothing except the justification and realization of my fears. Jump to the end for my current opinions.


In the old days, airplanes were controlled by the movement of wing and tail surfaces, driven by what was essentially piano wire directly connected via pulleys to the pilot’s controls. It was like an extension of the pilot’s body, because it was a direct physical link: hand, stick, wire, ailerons. Since the controls were extensions of the pilot’s body, they were driven by the pilot’s muscles. In those days, flying was physically exhausting because there were no automated systems like autopilot, or even altitude-hold, and all inputs were physical. Flying a two-hour mission in bumpy weather was like spending two hours bulldogging steers.

As airplanes became bigger and faster, this became a problem. When you move the stick, you are forcing a slab of metal to move against the airstream created by your flight. Remember when the back windows of a car would open? Remember riding along with the window open and your hand stuck out like an airfoil? If you tilted it the least little bit, it would take off, and it took all your strength (or a certain dexterity) to get it back into position. That’s the problem pilots encountered before the invention of power assist on flight controls. Moving a big metal plate against a fast-flowing airstream took all your strength, and maybe required the help of a co-pilot. There was a limit on what was physically possible. Enter the trim tab.

The trim tab, more accurately the servo tab, was a small rudder built into the much larger real rudder. The idea is that you move the small rudder this way, the much larger rudder responds by turning that way, and the whole ship or airplane responds. The idea dates from WWI. A real trim tab is a more or less ‘set it and leave it’ item, that creates a certain continuing flight regime (for instance, to offset a heavy load in the tail of the aircraft), while a servo tab is a true continuous flight control. However, since the organizational applications were talked about (by Buckminster Fuller, for starters) as ‘trim tabs’, I’ll stick with that.

What does all this have to do with terrorism? Just this. A terrorist act is an attempt to be a trim tab. If the terrorist group plays their cards right, they can cause a reaction in the target government that causes a counter-reaction in the populace. The basic idea is that the target government will over-react, increase oppression, and drive the populace into the arms of the terrorists. Properly executed, a terrorist campaign will get the government to do the terrorists work for them That’s one reason why most nascent guerilla movements use terrorism as a tool. The trouble is, that scenario can only play out when it’s native terrorists promoting a domestic cause against an oppressive government (which doesn’t have to be a foreign power, but often is). It doesn’t work that way when the terrorists are foreign, or the populace doesn’t feel oppressed, or the government is one that reacts with Norwegian calm.

Since Al Qaida was facing a different problem, they had to have a different immediate goal. Al Qaida’s goal was to target the US populace and government in such a way as to cause the US to overreact, both internally and externally, and to bankrupt itself the way the USSR did in Afghanistan.

Our reaction has validated AQ’s view of the US as a blind giant, ignorantly flailing around in response to stimuli we don’t understand. A measured approach to 9/11 would be to fill in the hole and turn the problem over to the FBI and the Treasury Dept. The world was on our side on 9/12, and we could have gotten unbelievable levels of cooperation. A strongman approach would be to follow the measured approach, plus invade Afghanistan, beat up on the Taliban, and chase AQ into the hills. The world would still be on our side, but the countries of SW Asia would begin to feel threatened, and would begin hedging their bets. Domestically, we had 99% of the US Muslim population on our side — the remainder being the disaffected youth who, like DYs of any persuasion hate the man. A measured domestic approach would be to armor the cockpit doors on airliners so it was impossible for another 9/11 to happen, and increase our police contacts within the Muslim community.

Instead, we embarked upon a decade-long attack on domestic freedoms, we demonized the Muslims in the US, we engaged in two wars in exactly the wrong place, the outcome of neither will be of any benefit to us. Let me emphasize that. In another year or five, we will be substantially out of both IQ and AF, and those two countries will be in whatever state we leave them. If we could have gotten them into that state for free, if the genie in the lamp could have delivered today’s Iraq and tomorrow’s Afghanistan without it costing us a dollar or a life, we’d still be worse off than we were in 2001. The fact that it cost trillions of dollars, and more American lives than were lost in 9/11 is just a side-benefit for the terrorists. I think The Onion’s headline on this year’s media coverage is appropriate: our nation would rather think about 9/11 than anything from the subsequent ten years.

So, here is the unexpected (by us), emergent, trim-tab-induced result. We have bankrupted our country, morally, politically, financially, and militarily. We have trampled on the US Constitution and the rights of citizens. We have squandered our post-Cold-War international advantages. We did it by reacting in exactly the wrong way to the 9/11 trim tab event. The terrorists acted. The government reacted in a predictably inappropriate fashion. The country and the economy responded by flying into the ground like a hijacked airliner. I can’t say the terrorists have won, but I can say they are well ahead on points. You can say that, hey, we’re still here, and Bin-Laden is dead, and Al Qaida a scattered, hunted remnant. But no suicide bomber expects to live to see the fruits of their sacrifice. I’m sure that if we could reassemble OBL from the inside of whatever sharks he’s now inhabiting, he’d say yeah, it worked. It was worth it.


So, what has changed in the five years since I wrote those words? Not a lot, except that our knowledge of things has expanded. As predicted, we still have a presence (read Americans being killed) in Iraq and Afghanistan. As predicted, neither of those countries has a successful government. As not predicted, the instability spilled over into Syria, and now our supposed ally, Turkey, and our opportunistic opponent, Russia, are working together to prop up the Assad regime, and destroy our friends, the Kurds (read domino effect). Guantanamo is still an extra-judicial detention camp, with 60-some prisoners, 40 of whom are too dangerous to release (read, they hate us), but are infeasible to prosecute because of their treatment (read, tortured, which may have something to do with why they hate us).

Three years ago, Edward Snowden pulled back the drapes and let some sun shine in on what our government had been doing in the dark, behind our backs, in our computers. Now we know that not only has the US Intelligence Community been unleashed on its citizens, in ways that are manifestly unconstitutional — and other ways that probably would also be, if the Republicans didn’t have (until recently) a majority on the Supreme Court. Those intrusive techniques have trickled down to the local police, who have conducted their own unconstitutional operations, and lied to the judges about it (or didn’t bother to lie, because the judges didn’t care).

And speaking of police, they are now armed with the latest in military hardware, courtesy of the unending wars, and their interactions with the citizenry have taken on many aspects of an occupying force, making a mockery of serve and protect. And if anyone complains, well, do you want the terrorists to murder us in our beds?

Has America become a police state? Heavens, no. We are still among the freest countries of the world. Too bad about slipping from that The Freest position. Have we laid the foundations for becoming a police state? It’s too soon to tell, but we are certainly establishing a framework on which those foundations could be built. Many of the elements are slotting into place: a militarized police force, contemptuous of its citizens, a ubiquitous domestic spy system that runs all the way up to the central government, a complaisant judiciary at all levels — all that is needed is a coming to power of a political party more interested in power than governance, headed by a like-minded demagogue.

If it looks like the American ship of state has careened out of control, scraping from one reef to another, that’s a tribute to the effectiveness of trim tabs.

9/11, Trim Tab Day. Remember it.

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