Flying the Guarded Skies
think Ill leave the big-picture opining for another time.
I dont know how many Americans will be interested in one persons
experience flying domestic airlines this past weekend. But thats
whats on my mind as I sit in an airport waiting for a connecting
flight, with time on my hands and a yellow legal pad in my lap.
If youre reading this Im just fine, since I would have
to have made it home to transfer my notes to the computer.
it was foolish to do so, but I had already planned to fly to the
Liberty Magazine Editors Conference in Port Townsend, more-or-less
near Seattle, this past weekend and I decided not to change my plans.
I did have to make some itinerary changes due to scheduled flights
being canceled or juggled, which added a certain amount of inconvenience
and time to the trip.
dont know whether it was a matter of different airports implementing
changes differently or what. But security seemed tighter and more
systematic when I returned to Southern California on Tuesday than
when I left the previous Friday.
might also be that a passenger at the Seattle-Tacoma airport, reportedly
an electrician, said on Monday he had passed through security checkpoints
several times with a dreaded box cutter in his backpack. He said
he had forgotten about it. He called a local TV station. Why not
just quietly inform the head of security? Ah, these 15-minutes-of-fame
times! Anyway, as I understand it he wasnt allowed on the
flight and was later arrested. And the next morning they were searching
checked luggage as well as carryon bags.)
I had left the previous Friday, the check-in agent told me the computer
selected passengers at random to have their bags searched and I
was a lucky winner. It looked to me as if one of 10 or 20 passengers
were selected. The guy who searched my bag was polite to the point
of being apologetic, but thorough. He and everyone at the airport
seemed to go to some extra effort to be courteous.
Seattle the searchers looked at me a little funny when they found
several copies of Albert Jay Nocks 1935 classic, Our
Enemy the State in my suitcase. The copies were furnished
to conference participants by the estimable Idaho businessman Ralph
Smeed. They seemed reassured to know I had written the other book
of which I had multiple copies, Ambush
at Ruby Ridge. They probably figured (correctly, I suspect)
that a writer might be a bit eccentric but was probably physically
OR PETTY HARASSMENT?
have my doubts about whether all these security measures really
offer much protection. I say this without the slightest rancor
and indeed with a certain admiration for those charged with
implementing tighter security procedures. But the procedures seem
along with certain other measures being considered
to be a combination of symbolic steps to reassure passengers and
measures to increase government control more because they can than
because theres a solid, empirically defensible reason to do
there might be some justification for banning carryon baggage and
ending early seat selection two measures the FAA is said
to be considering the reasoning strikes me as a stretch.
The carryon ban would supposedly give security screeners more time
to check passengers. Based only on my own experience and observation,
the presence of carryon bags doesnt add enough time to the
process to justify the passenger inconvenience involved. But that
might be different if and when the planes start carrying something
close to full capacity.
own admittedly anecdotal experience was that the four flights I
was on, which included connecting flights, ranged from maybe one-fifth
to two-thirds full. The flight with the smallest load was late at
night, so that might have been a factor.)
early seat selection is proposed, say FAA spokespersons, because
the suspicion is developing that some of the 9/11 hijackers might
have had their weapons planted on the plane earlier by parties unknown,
at the seats to which they were assigned. Well, maybe. But before
just ending early seat selection, Id like to see some consideration
of the hassle for the airlines and the loss of convenience to passengers
(though I dont know quite how these would be measured). I
suspect the increase in safety might seem small by comparison, but
these matters are almost always more than a bit subjective.
real reason I felt reasonably confident about flying was my belief
that it would be unlikely the terrorists would do the same thing
again (there might be copycats, but I should think it would be difficult
to organize one so quickly). The value of an act to the terrorist
is in part its shockingly unexpected character. Terrorists focused
enough to pull off the World Trade Center obscenities would have
to know that security would be tighter for some time to come and
security officials would be alert, perhaps to a fault, to people
with certain features and characteristics. So I didnt think
there would be a repeat. Ive been right so far, but who knows?
If I had a notion what the next step might be I certainly wouldnt
post it here.
unwelcome fact, it seems to me, is that the kind of absolute fail-safe
security some officials seem to want is close to impossible. And
the authorities may be going about it the wrong way.
a thought experiment. Instead of checking passengers for guns, knives
and other weapons and confiscating them, what if the authorities
checked for the right kind of ammunition (there are apparently bullets
that can do considerable damage to a human but not penetrate an
airplane skin) and issued guns to passengers who forgot to bring
their own? The prospect of being taken out ignominiously before
completing the glorious mission would deter a high percentage of
potential suicide hijackers, it seems to me.
or even encouraging passengers to defend themselves, as the passengers
of Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania, did just might be the
most efficacious way to deter hijacking. But the unpalatable truth
is that there is no such thing, in this day and age (or perhaps
any), as 100 percent foolproof security.
other reason I felt relatively safe was that I was sure security
personnel would have heightened awareness, regardless of what specific
procedures they were following. But even with that heightened awareness,
as the media have reported, a few weapons have slipped through security
checkpoints. Perhaps there are procedures that would eliminate all
such slips. But I doubt it and I suspect the requirements
would be so onerous that passengers would start to protest, in part
by deciding not to fly, as many have already.
success of the terrorists depended on audacity and the unexpectedness
of their approach. The passengers on the first flights probably
expected the kind of normal hijacking we have all seen
or heard about. The hijackers would demand either large sums of
money or enough fuel to get to a foreign destination. There might
be hours or days on the tarmac, but the incident would probably
be resolved without passengers being killed.
Flight 93 passengers apparently had the advantage (if thats
the right word) of knowledge that other airplanes had crashed into
buildings. So they did what we would hope most Americans with a
reasonably developed sense of personal responsibility and self-reliance
would do. They took matters into their own hands and in a show of
heroism prevented a disaster potentially much greater than what
befell them. A few essentially unarmed, untrained passengers did
more that day than the army of federal officials, investigators
and law enforcement people who are supposed to be our first and
last line of defense against such atrocities.
is not to say that most law enforcement and public-safety people
havent responded to the disaster admirably. They have. Even
given that, and given that fail-safe protection against terrorism
is something of a mirage, the WTC Pentagon catastrophe represents
a significant federal failure perhaps even, as law professor
and former Orange County
Register columnist Butler Shaffer has suggested, a failure
of the hierarchical state system itself.
is not as if the feds have no resources. Over the past decade the
FBI tripled its spending on the effort to stop terrorism, quintupled
the number of intelligence gatherers, and tried to reform its bureaucracy
and customs so there would be better communication of information
among various agencies.
1998, (according to "FBI
Agents Ill-Equipped to Predict Terror Acts," Washington
Post, September 24, by Joby Warrick, Joe Stepens, Mary Pat Flaherty
and James V. Grimaldi) then-FBI director Louis Freeh decided to
make terrorism the agencys top priority. FBI spending on programs
described in the budget as counterterrorism grew to $423 million
by 2001. Numerous stories have been told of intelligence and information
that probably should with 20/20 hindsight, of course have
set off alarm bells. More such stories will undoubtedly be forthcoming.
fact that WTC occurred doesnt necessarily mean all those hundreds
of millions were wasted. But they did fail to prevent this act of
terrorism. Perhaps it would be helpful to consider alternatives
to the centralized, hierarchical, rule-making law enforcement model.
The goal is to deter hijacking and improve safety. There must be
other ways to do it than imposing more federal guidelines.
example, it seems more than possible that the federal government
will take over full responsibility for airport and airline security,
with the taxpayers footing the bill. Thats a defensible course,
especially since piling the added cost of mandated security procedures
on airlines that were already in shaky financial condition might
be a recipe for dissolution for some of them. If you view the disaster
as evidence of the failure of the government to live up to its implied
contract of preventing the most horrible of disasters, perhaps compensation
is in order.
if the federal government instead gave the airlines a dollar-for-dollar
tax credit for security expenses perhaps in conjunction with
a firm policy under which the airlines would bear full liability
for damages resulting from security breaches?
a policy should give the airlines a strong incentive to try different
but strongly results-oriented approaches to security. They would
be rewarded if innovation actually produced better results rather
than being punished with fines that go to the government
rather than toward improved security measures for diverging from
the tight, detailed and sometimes utterly irrelevant federal directives
without the full liability aspect, or with an arrangement that put
a cap on full liability, the airlines would have strong reasons
to come up with successful procedures. These would probably vary
from one airline to another. Passengers might even be willing to
pay a premium for stronger security or in time they might
pay a premium for convenience. In time, I suspect, as they learned
more about what procedures worked and what didnt, procedures
might start to converge. But each airline, in addition to having
a strong incentive to improve security, would also have an incentive
to treat customers with courtesy and dignity.
cant claim to have thought through and analyzed all the possible
implications of such an approach. But I do think such a policy should
be among the options receiving serious consideration.
am also suggesting how could I have imagined I could just
tell a story without some thumbsucking about implications?
that those of us who hope that terrorism can be minimized (though
probably never completely eliminated) without a war that sheds innocent
blood and expands the American sphere of responsibility in ways
that will be difficult to sustain and might have negative unintended
consequences, have an obligation. We need to develop an anti-terrorist
strategy or various alternative strategies which not only
minimizes the need for military action but also works better.
an opening from me. I believe Ill have other proposals in
future columns. But I know there are plenty of people out there
who know much more about terrorism and security than I do. Let a
hundred flowers bloom.
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