It’s a difficult thing to accept there was nothing you could do to help someone in a life-threatening situation — much less hundreds of “someones.”
But you and I aren’t an Iron Man, a Captain America or a Thor. For my part, I arrived to witness the destruction at the Pentagon on the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, in less than 15 minutes after terrorists crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into a newly refurbished wedge.
You see, in my day job, I’m a security communicator. As an independent reporter, I spent the next 10 years exploring the question of what could we have done to save those lives, and what can we do to prevent or mitigate future catastrophes of a similar scale?
Here in Washington, DC, teams of people got to work on different aspects of the problem, and some policymakers produced the National Response Plan, a policy that emphasizes the protection of lives and critical infrastructure.
It’s rare that the developers of such policy are the ones who also carry it out, but in the movie world of the Avengers, characters like Tony Stark and Steve Rogers get to do just that. They are fictional superheroes who get to represent what is best in all of us as viewers and readers. As a long-time comic book collector, I know and appreciate their world as well.
And so it’s absolutely refreshing that these movie characters appropriately put a great emphasis on avoiding the loss of human life. Spoilers lie ahead for Avengers: Age of Ultron.
The focus on our actions around a disaster in a post-9/11 world in the bright line between what makes us “good” or “bad.” In the movie, the villainous Ultron is prone to giving speeches about the dangers of people like Tony Stark and the power wielded by individuals like the Avengers.
But when push comes to shove, each member of the Avengers would rather give their own lives than to see someone else come to harm. We see it in big ways when Iron Man develops his plan to save helpless victims in the Eastern European country of Sokovia, ready to sacrifice himself to save Sokovians and perhaps billions of other people. And we see it in small ways when Hawkeye makes a call to put himself at risk to save one small boy left behind after the mass evacuation effort to clear people from Ultron’s path of destruction.
Similarly, here in Washington, policymakers sought to emphasize the important things when thinking of how to prepare for and respond to the next big catastrophic event. When necessary, the National Response Plan calls for “an organized, phased and supervised withdrawal, dispersal or removal of civilians from dangerous or potentially dangerous areas, and includes their reception and care in safe areas.”
Evacuations can take different forms, including spontaneous or directed evacuations, notified or no-notice evacuations, and even sheltering in place (the appropriate response to, say, an earthquake).
I was moved by the focus on the protection of civilians in the latest Avengers movie, as I was in the first movie, and it’s one aspect of the movie that will continue to look good many years down the road.
It’s also a terrific bit of storytelling that emphasizes what we learned here in Washington in the aftermath of such catastrophes as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. And again, although the developers of policy are rarely the same as those who make it operational, I found plenty in the Avengers: Age of Ultron to honor the aspirations of those policymakers who carefully considered the best priorities for our nation’s first responders.
Take a bow, Avengers. And take a bow, Washington.