A Pilot on Airline Security
Good comments from Salon’s pilot-in-residence on airline security:
In the days ahead, you can expect sharp debate on whether the killing was justified, and whether the nation’s several thousand air marshals—their exact number is a tightly guarded secret—undergo sufficient training. How are they taught to deal with mentally ill individuals who might be unpredictable and unstable, but not necessarily dangerous? Are the rules of engagement overly aggressive?
Those are fair questions, but not the most important ones.
Wednesday’s incident fulfills what many of us predicted ever since the Federal Air Marshals Service was widely expanded following the 2001 terror attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington: The first person killed by a sky marshal, whether through accident or misunderstanding, would not be a terrorist. In a lot of ways, Alpizar is the latest casualty of Sept. 11. He is not the victim of a trigger-happy federal marshal but of our own, now fully metastasized security mania.
Terrorists, meanwhile, won’t waste their time on schemes with such an extreme likelihood of failure.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for us. In America, reasoned debate and clear thinking aren’t the useful currencies they once were, and backlash to the TSA’s announcement has come from a host of unexpected sources—members of Congress, flight attendants unions and families of Sept. 11 victims.
“The Bush administration proposal is just asking the next Mohammed Atta to move from box cutters to scissors,” said Rep. Markey.
Actually, that Atta and his henchmen used box cutters to commandeer four aircraft means very little. Just as effectively, they could have employed snapped-off pieces of plastic, shattered bottles or, for that matter, their own bare fists and some clever wile. Sept. 11 had nothing to do with exploiting airport security and everything to do with exploiting our mindset at the time. What weapons the terrorists had or didn’t have is essentially irrelevant. Hijackings, to that point in history, were perpetrated mainly through bluff, and while occasionally deadly, they seldom resulted in more than a temporary inconvenience—diversions to Cuba or cities in the Middle East. The moment American flight 11 collided with the north tower of the World Trade Center, everything changed; good luck to the next skyjacker stupid enough to attempt the same stunt with anything less than a flamethrower in his hand.
This is almost acceptable, if only there weren’t so many hours of squandered time and manpower in the balance. Nobody wants weapons on a jetliner. But, more critical, neither do we want to bog down the system. The longer we fuss at the metal detectors over low-threat objects, the greater we expose ourselves to the very serious dangers of bombs and explosives. TSA is not in need of more screeners; it’s in need of reallocation of personnel and resources.
It was, we shouldn’t forget, 17 years ago this month that Pan Am flight 103 was destroyed over Lockerbie, Scotland by a stash of Semtex hidden inside a Toshiba radio in a piece of checked luggage. Then as now, and perhaps for years to come, explosives were the most serious high-level threat facing commercial aviation. European authorities were quick to implement a sweeping revision of luggage-screening protocols designed to thwart another Lockerbie. It took almost 15 years, and the catastrophe of Sept. 11, before America began to do the same—and a comprehensive system still isn’t fully in place.
Flying was and remains exceptionally safe, but whether that’s because or in spite of the system is tough to tell. The “war on terror” has left us fighting many enemies—some real, many imagined. We’ll figure things out at some point, maybe. Until then, dead in Miami, Rigoberto Alpizar is yet more collateral damage.