Please Don’t Remain Calm

Instinctual response in the wake of crises like 9/11.

The story of United Flight 93, more than any other tale—true or fable—of our lifetime, makes you wonder about yourself. These were not young soldiers in battle. This was not the culmination of some long crisis with time to ruminate and firm up your resolve. These were ordinary, middle-class and (mostly) middle-aged Americans going about their everyday lives, when—bang!—they faced the ultimate test. And passed. “Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,” goes the old hymn. But usually it’s not literally just a moment. These people were not just courageous. They were instinctually courageous.

I think I’d flunk. Oh, perhaps optimistically, I give myself a 50-50 chance of having the courage to rise from my seat and join a charge toward the cockpit (once I’d concluded I was almost certainly going to die anyway). What I find harder to imagine is disobeying the instructions from authority figures—flight attendants, anonymous voices over the public-address system, telling me to stay seated and remain calm.

In retrospect, this was bad advice. Similar instructions were even worse advice at the World Trade Center, where people who called 911 were told to remain at their desks. Many ignored or didn’t wait for this advice, fled anyway, made it partway down the emergency stairs, and then were told to go back to their desks, or to wait at assembly points in the doomed buildings. Hundreds did as they were told and died as a result. Other hundreds defied authority, proceeded out of the buildings, and went about the rest of their lives.

So, what’s the lesson? Is it to defy authority and follow your own instincts in an emergency? If so, we haven’t learned it. For a while after 9/11 there was talk of changing the official policy regarding hijackings and to start encouraging the passengers to whack the hijackers with their pillows, and so on. An urban myth sprouted about an airplane captain who gave the passengers detailed instructions in guerilla warfare at 30,000 feet. But today, airline passengers are still told at the start of every flight that in an emergency they should remain calm and follow instructions from anyone in a uniform or—in the case of United—even inanimate objects (“lighted signs and placards”).

Poking around the Web, I stumbled across the official “Hijacking Survival Guidelines” for employees of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They say, “Stay calm and encourage others around you to do the same. Do not challenge the hijackers physically or verbally. Comply with their instructions. Do not struggle. … Blend in with the other airline passengers.” (There’s no telling, I suppose, how an emotionally volatile hijacker might react to the discovery that there is an Agriculture Department employee on board.)

So the U.S. government is kicking in millions of dollars for a memorial to the heroes of United 93. But meanwhile it is officially encouraging people not to do what these heroes did, should the occasion arise. “Don’t try this at home” might be a sensible policy if the United 93 passengers had been specially selected or trained. But they were an utterly random collection of Americans, just like you or me or the employees of the Ag Department. If they are heroes, why are we being told not to do what they did?

It is the nature of authorities to assert authority, and its hard to imagine officials of anything urging people to pay no attention to official instructions. But there is also some logic here. The policies followed by police and fire officials at the World Trade Center (at the cost of their own lives as well as others’) seem very wrong in hindsight. But these rules themselves were the product of hindsight. During the first World Trade Center bombing, back in 1993, rescue attempts and fire control were frustrated by the anarchy of thousands fleeing unnecessarily down narrow emergency stairs. Emergency planners are like generals—always fighting the last war. But what other choice do they have? Let he who anticipated that the next four hijacked planes would be pointed at major office buildings cast the first stone.

With convenient symmetry, it also seems to be the nature of most people, most of the time, to obey authority. The famous Stanley Milgram experiments at Yale in 1961 demonstrated that it is frighteningly easy to induce ordinary people—good people—to inflict pain on others, when ordered to do so by some authority figure. Sept. 11 demonstrated that most people will sit tight and obey orders even unto their own deaths. The defiance of authority is a big reason the United 93 story is so thrilling. This was heroism, American-style. Dissing the Man on your way out the door. These folks were cowboys. John Wayne and Clint Eastwood don’t have time for the rules, and neither did they.

But instinct aside, people who choose to obey authority in crises may do so because of a conscious and rational decision that it is the right thing to do. If, in an airplane emergency, the flight attendant told me to remain in my seat with my seat belt buckled high across my waist and my seat back and tray table in the full upright and locked position, I would be strongly inclined to assume that a trained flight attendant knew more about what was going on, and the best way of dealing with it, than I did. She, far better than I, could assess the ever-present danger of items shifting in the overhead bins. The incantatory power of these familiar phrases no doubt enhances their persuasiveness. As a fairly enthusiastic fan of the rule of law generally—in a democratic society, that is—I would probably regard being caught in the middle of a crisis like 9/11 as a test of my principles in extremis. And I would be inclined, even for high-minded reasons, to do as told.

And sometimes obeying authority is the counsel of courage while defying it is the counsel of cowardice. It probably took more courage to climb back up to your office in the World Trade Center than it did to proceed down and out of the building. Foolish courage, as it turns out, but you never know. I suspect that many emergencies are what game theorists call a “prisoner’s dilemma” situation, where everybody is best off if most people obey the rules, but the few that disobey are even better off—as long as they’re only a few. In a situation like the World Trade Center, for example, the most lives might be saved by an orderly evacuation, but your best shot at saving your own life is to escape before order collapses because everyone else is doing what you do.

Courage and cowardice, obeying instructions and defying them, are all unreliable guides in an unimaginable crisis like 9/11. In a way, that’s comforting. You can’t really get it wrong. You’re in the hands of fate (or faith, if you’ve got it). We celebrate the passengers who rebelled on United 93 for their choice, but we surely don’t, or shouldn’t, blame any of the folks on any of those planes for arriving at a different decision, or none at all.