Chameleon Weapons

You can’t detect them, because they look normal:

One type is the exact size and shape of a credit card, except that two of the edges are lethally sharp. It’s made of G10 laminate, an ultra-hard material normally employed for circuit boards. You need a diamond file to get an edge on it.


Another configuration is a stabbing weapon which is indistinguishable from a pen. This one is made from melamine fiber, and can sit snugly inside a Bic casing. You would only find out it was not the real thing if you tried to write with it. It’s sharpened with a blade edge at the tip which Defense Review describes as “scary sharp.”


The FBI’s extensive Guide to Concealable Weapons has 89 pages of weapons intended to get through security. These are generally variations of a knifeblade concealed in a pen, comb or a cross—and most of them are pretty obvious on X-ray.

Posted on March 29, 2006 at 6:58 AM51 Comments


J.D. Abolins March 29, 2006 7:31 AM

Disguised weapons heave been around for ages. (Think of the sword in the cane of the Victorian era or belt buckle knives.)

And then there are improvised weapons. Among the less practical ones was a technique to tightly roll a newspaper into a stabbing weapon reportedly taught to World War 2 OSS agents. The problem was it take a long time to fashion a tightly rolled cone.

Anyway, the possibilities of objects that could be used as weapons can go on and on. It can be tempting to run down and counter every possibility, include some movie plot ones, rather than prioritising the risks. A more practical approach would be to deal with highly likely and large threats while developing resilience.

Risk perceptions do depend upon vantage point. For large scale security, such as preventing another major terrorist attack, the chameleon weapons are a smaller element of risk than WMDs and such. For police officer on patrol, the chameleon weapons can be a bigger day-to-day risk. For many prison guards, improvised weapons are commonly encountered in their work.

J.D. Abolins March 29, 2006 7:44 AM

@AlexM – No, it’d be simpler to knock out the passengers.

Air Comatose. Added bonus, albeit a morbid one: If the plane crashes fewer people spent their last few minutes of their lives in fear.

More seriously, however, (keeping with the aircraft settings) it is better to concentrate on preventing weapons for which their is almost no in-flight response possible, such as bombs, from getting on-board than on the myriad of possible esoteric chameleon weapons.

If a passenger attacked with, say, a credit card cutter, a few people may get injured or killed. But the attacker could be subdued by air marshals or other passengers. Post 9/11, it is less likely that air passengers will sit in their seats hoping all will turn out well. Just as long as the attacker does not get into the cockpit. There are layers of response and countermeasures.

Of course, the risks are not confined to air travel or subway travel or the “terror target du jour”. I am a supporter of design for resilience.

Bruce Schneier March 29, 2006 8:29 AM

From Beyond Fear:

“You can even make a knife onboard the plane. Buy some steel epoxy glue at a local hardware store. It comes in two tubes: a base with steel dust and a hardener. Make a knifelike mold by folding a piece of cardboard in half. Then mix equal parts from each tube and form into a knife shape, using a metal fork from your first-class dinner service (or a metal spoon you carry aboard) for the handle. Fifteen minutes later you’ve got a reasonably sharp, very pointy, black steel knife.”

Adi Shamir came up with this one. Or, at least, he was the one who I heard the idea from.

Guillaume March 29, 2006 8:32 AM

Defense Review’s article says
“…they are currently only available to verified military and law enforcement personnel…”

Or to anybody on DefenseReview’s staff ?

I wonder if the deputy police commissioner of the San Gabriel Transit Authority Police’s anti-terrorism division could get one… He might have to show a business card though 😉

MSB March 29, 2006 8:41 AM

Small edge- and stabbing weapons are not a big threat to airplane security. Post 9/11, passengers are prepared to jump anyone who’s wielding a weapon of that sort.

AG March 29, 2006 8:59 AM

Bruce I’ve been saying this for a long time. Now WARNING it is a crazy idea BUT it would work 100%.

You want to truly secure a passenger aircraft?

A. Lock the pilot away. (Like they have already.)
B. Arm every adult on the plane with a weapon that can be used to attack a person, but not bring down a plane. EX: knifes would be good, Guns would be bad

8 terrorist stand up to take the plane… 80 passengers stand up to take them out

The reason the 9/11 attacks worked is because people thought if they just sat down and waited they would be safe and released…. that illusion is gone.

“In the event of depressurization an air mask will drop from the ceiling…
In the event of a terrorist high jacking various sharp and blunt objects will drop from the overhead compartment. If you are with a child please secure your weapon of choice before you secure theirs…”

David A March 29, 2006 9:01 AM

Looking at the datasheet, G10 isn’t “ultra-hard” at all – it’s a fraction of the hardness of a hardened steel.

[The datasheet gives 110 on the Rockwell M scale, which is about 85 on the more useful Vickers scale. A knife blade is around 60 on the Rockwell C scale, which is about 700 Vickers]

The fibres in it will help, of course, but there’s nothing terribly miraculous about it.

Bruce Schneier March 29, 2006 9:14 AM

I’ve seen knives made out of G10. They’re plenty sharp.

Remember that they’re primarily designed for stabbing, so the strength requirements are much less.

Chuck March 29, 2006 9:41 AM

Preventing the takeover of an aircraft doesn’t have to be complex, a system that locks the cockpit door mechanically interlocked with the landing gear and prevent contact between the pilots and passenger compartment. Airline pilots will simply always fly to the correct destination.

A more interesting scenario for this type of weapon would be places such as prisons or couthouses.

Jeremiah Blatz March 29, 2006 10:14 AM

As long as you keep guns and explosives off of planes, hijacking is over. Hundreds or thousands killed when a plane flies into a populated area is terror. “6 killed in hijack attempt” is not terror.

I agree with AlexM, the primary effect of these weapons is to make prison and courthouse assassinations somewhat easier.

bob March 29, 2006 10:18 AM

The weak link isnt the passengers anymore. Show up just before a flight at the terminal with pictures of (both) pilots’ families holding that morning’s newspaper. Show the pilots the pictures. Tell them if the plane makes it to the original destination it would be bad. Dont pick pilots in the middle of a divorce.

John March 29, 2006 10:21 AM

Has it ever occured to anyone that a person well trained in a suitable martial art can defeat, incapacitate and (if he is cold-blooded enough) even kill several persons – Without any difficulty? How do you scan skills in martial arts? Better start to build a database and require registration…

Akos March 29, 2006 10:28 AM

Why take disguised weapons onto the flight when you can buy knifes made out of kevlar which don’t show up on the xray.
Or even easier buy a few bottles of something at the duty free and use them as molotov-coctails or trash the bottle and use the pieces instead of knifes.

Anonymous March 29, 2006 10:28 AM


“With no training, it is difficult to defeat a threat you are not expecting. Confusion could make the situation worse and work to the perps advantage. This could work to the disadvantage of a sky marshall on board the aircraft.”

I’m not saying that no one could get hurt, but an attacker with a small edge or stabbing weapon can hurt perhaps a few passengers near him. He cannot take over control of the plane.

No all flights have air marshals on board. If air marhsals are on board, I’d expect them to take care of the attacker before ordinary passengers feel compelled to fight back.

“idiots with weapons are the big threat.”

Who are these “idiots with weapons” you’re talking about? I never said anything about giving weapons to passengers.

“Potentially, a reactive passenger could be killed by a sky marshall.”

Potentially. But more likely, before any passenger is about to try to subdue an attacker, the passenger will alert other passengers to the threat and get other passengers to join in. I’d expect an air marshal to know not to shoot indiscriminately before he knows who’s threatening the safety of the plane.

Ipstenu March 29, 2006 10:44 AM

Databases of people who are ‘dangerous’ aren’t going to help. One fake ID later…

The only way you can ‘scan’ a person and know if they’re a threat is if you can read their minds. Everything else is just for show. Scan the luggage for the obvious, like bombs, but seriously, it’s still easy to sneak weapons or weaponable material onto a plane Try teaching awareness, or arm the flight attendants.

Hey, now there’s an idea. Wait for the drunk guy to pinch a flight attendants ass and she pistol whips him. Should keep the morons in line.

Andrew March 29, 2006 10:53 AM

Reminds me of the time they made me turn on my laptop in airport security. “Excuse me sir, could you write something with your pen for me?”

Alun Jones March 29, 2006 10:55 AM

Here’s a couple of rebuttals:
1. Air Comatose – not a good idea. The rate of death or injury caused by general anaesthesia would make it clear that some people die in transit. You’d have to have a trained anaesthetist on board for what, every three or four people, just to check vital signs and make sure nobody dies unnecessarily.
2. Lock the cabin doors and say “haha – we’re going to our original destination”. Just wonderful. Now, what if the hijackers say “sure, and until our GPS units show that we’re on our track, how about we shoot one hostage every six minutes. Here’s the first one… bang!” How long do you think that a human pilot could hold against that kind of pressure?

When you suggest security measures, you then have to flip your mindset around, and ask what would be the obvious (or not so obvious) consequence of your actions.

reinkefj March 29, 2006 11:00 AM

I know it might require a little reengineering, or some after market glue, but why is there a cockpit door after 9/11. It would seem that a solid steel wall would elimniate that threat without doing anything further.

In the alternative, why don’t the pilots have hand guns? There used to be that requirement when they carried the mail. Most of them are ex military. I’m trusting them to drive the plane but we don’t trust them to defend their cockpit.

Finally, it would seem that depneding upon the government to protect us from anything, more than the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, or Glenda the Good Witch, is lunacy. Make the airlines responsible for security and let the marketplace sort it out.

I, for one, am not taking any air travel that is not required by employer until my Fourth Amendment rights are returned to me. The TSA is a joke and window dresssing. All it did was increase the federal payroll AND distract us from real security.


Chuck March 29, 2006 11:08 AM

Alun Jones,

Unfortunate consequence yes, but part of the idea is to remove any contact between the pilots and passenger cabin. So no demands could be made to the pilots. Yes, one of the possiblities is that all the passengers would be killed, however it would still not achieve the hijackers goals. This might occur once, but once hijacking is proven highly difficult, then hijacking attempts should decrease. A better attack idea is the one mentioned by Bob, in which you simply go after the pilots of the plane by attacking thier loved ones. It doesn’t require putting any weapons on the planes themselves and avoids the more common current countermeasures.

Alternatively, with the progress the military is making in UAVs why not just remotely pilot the plane and treat the passengers as cargo?

Bruce Schneier March 29, 2006 11:21 AM

“Lock the cabin doors and say ‘haha – we’re going to our original destination.’ Just wonderful. Now, what if the hijackers say ‘sure, and until our GPS units show that we’re on our track, how about we shoot one hostage every six minutes. Here’s the first one… bang!’ How long do you think that a human pilot could hold against that kind of pressure?”

Israeli pilots are trained for such a possibility. Basically, they ignore the terrorists and a there’s a horrible tragedy in back. But they also know some maneuvers that will cause everyone, including the terrorists, to lose their lunch. But if that fails, they are to not open the cabin door for any reason. Period.

bob March 29, 2006 11:22 AM

The pilots dont have handguns because the TSA doesnt want them to. A pilot could never be expected to be behave responsibly when the lives of the passengers are at stake; and without a handgun, there’s no way the pilot could harm anybody.

bob March 29, 2006 11:23 AM

Bruce: the pilots could just depressurize the cabin. Unless the terrorists brought their own air supply (possible) with them, they’ll stop.

aikimark March 29, 2006 11:28 AM

Isn’t anyone going to mention “Snakes on a Plane”?!? 🙂

The MST3K guys might have to come out of retirement for this one.

I think that compromising the pilots or ground crew would be more effective than smuggling assassin/spy/prison weapons on a plane. Modern cockpit hardening will morph most direct-pilot-threat hijacking attempts to be of a “do this or the crew suffers/dies” variety.

Gaining access to a hardened cockpit will require some serious explosive power or non-trivial amount of time…unless you had a light saber or M-lash. 😉

If you could gain access to flight-control circuitry, you might be able to take over control the plane.

An alternative scheme would send incorrect navigation data to the pilots and their systems. You would also need to play a man-in-the-middle attack on their communications.

If you just wanted to bring the plane down, you might just use an EM pulse generator to fry all circuitry.

If you’d smuggled a toxin or explosive into the passenger compartment, you could potentially kill the flight crew fairly quickly, by way of incineration or poison.

I don’t perceive these chameleon weapons to be a threat to flight safety. Personal safety, yes. However, this really is the area of concern to bodyguards, spys, the secret service, and prison guards.

I agree that a skilled martial artist can quickly do a lot of harm without having to resort to using such weapons.

Tom March 29, 2006 11:47 AM

The locked pilot door has always raised a question for me, what happens if the pilot, copilot, or both go rogue?

jmr March 29, 2006 11:53 AM

@ reinkefj

Having the marketplace sort out security is a bad idea. Why? Security = a tax. Private companies always try to reduce costs that they do not absolutely have to take in. This creates a conflict of interest. Better Security often requires Some $$$ (usually), even if it’s an expenditure that ultimately costs less. Every company I’ve ever heard of grants serious consideration to reducing up-front costs for their endeavors.

Security on an airplane is not a service that you can sell. The purchaser of the security would have to be the passenger, but the passengers aren’t the only people at risk. Think September 11th. In order for the “marketplace” to sort it out so that 2700 people didn’t die that day, the people who were in WTC would have had to be the ones paying for the security service for -every- airplane. That’s a tax, and therefore an imposition on society by a governmental agency who dictates a required expense rather than a for-profit company that can decide to trim costs.

Zaphod March 29, 2006 12:01 PM

Darn it, bob. That was my idea too.

It’s not easy to conceal an oxygen tank and breathing appuratus to smuggle on board.

Yes we might lose a few passengers who can’t get there mask on but there are always trade offs.

roy March 29, 2006 12:11 PM

Re: Improvising weapons on site

In the movie ‘Freeway’, Reese Witherspoon’s character demonstrates how to make a shiv out of plastic wrap and a toothbrush, using a small flame and any abrasive surface.

Re: Disguised weapons that will pass all scrutiny

Any man can smuggle a garrotte aboard disquised as a necktie. Actually, it is a necktie.


I’ve got the weapon for you: an aluminum baseball bat. Cheap, hard for passengers to steal, easy to clean up. Arm every passenger with one — (for safety, terminate the air marshal service first ) — and dare anyone to try taking on the passengers.


If you want to coerce the pilots, kidnap them and their families at home the night before, holding the familiies hostage as the pilots leave for work in the morning. They’ll have had time to think over the terms.

Re: cockpit doors

They used to be convenient, but were never indispensable. New models and retrofits should have a solid bulkhead. The pilots should enter by a hatch from the outside. They can make do with microwaved food and coffee, and have their own head, and pressure hull. The pilots then don’t need guns. And the air marshals are then obsolete. If all communication is cut off, hijackers can hold the passengers hostage only after landing, when the pilots are able to leave the aircraft.

Martin Frankel March 29, 2006 12:14 PM

Fins on windsurfing boards and surfboards are commonly made out of G10. It is stiff, durable, and easy to machine into complex shapes on CNC equipment. It certainly doesn’t need diamond tools to get a servicable edge on it, but I doubt you could get a literally razor sharp edge no matter what you use. Still, a great many people have been cut to the bone with non-razor-sharp G10 material in surfing accidents. You could make a great stabbing weapon out of G10 but I am skeptical that it would make a particularly good slashing weapon.


jmr March 29, 2006 12:23 PM


Actually, having a completely hardened separate cockpit isn’t necessarily a good idea, either. If the pilot needs to look at how an engine is functioning or see if the flaps aren’t working, it can be hard to do that from a cockpit. I don’t want to eliminate their options when it comes to dealing with safety issues.

Norman Yarvin March 29, 2006 12:26 PM

I’ve played with some of these plastic knives, and found them to be nowhere near sharp enough to be serious weapons. Yes, you could poke a hole in someone with them, but with a steel knife you can slash across someone’s belly and watch as his guts fall out; you can slash his arm and slice through tendons and nerves, disabling it immediately. This requires that the knife be honed to a razor edge, but that’s not too hard — not with steel, anyway. With plastics it’s somewhere between very hard and impossible. The other thing I’ve seen are ceramic knives. Those can be honed to a very fine edge, but that edge is brittle. What the makers of the knives I saw did was to make that edge a very large angle — about 70 degrees, rather than the 20 or so degrees of a sharp steel knife. That means the edge doesn’t break off the first time you use it; but the downside is that it doesn’t cut very well. I’ve used steel-filled epoxy, too; it is very nice stuff in its place, but it is far too brittle to make a good knife. And a knife that’s useful just for show won’t do it, these days, in a hijacking. The only way you’ll get passengers to stop fighting, these days, is if you, drenched in blood, are standing over the carved-up corpses of the four biggest, burliest passengers, and still somehow have kept enough cool to calmly reassure the rest that if they don’t fight back, nothing bad will happen to them. You can’t do that if your knife broke off in the belly of the first guy, or if it just scratched his arm rather than slicing it as he tried to punch you.

All that said, getting a knife onto a plane seems like a fairly easy task. I wouldn’t bother with exotic materials, though; I’d just find a piece of carry-on luggage that contained a fairly heavy steel reinforcing strip, of rectangular cross-section, and replace that strip with a pair of steel strips of triangular cross-section, bolted together so as to be exactly the same shape as the original strip. The sharp edges of those triangles would be the edges of the knives; they would be precision ground so that the junction where they fit together would not be perceptible on X-ray.

jmr March 29, 2006 12:27 PM

Also @roy:

Regarding kidnapping a pilot’s family: What is the pilot going to do? Crash the plane, knowing that the terrorists will probably kill his family anyway and therefore be terminating his life, the lives of people on the plane, the lives of people on the ground, and his own family members’ lives? Or keep the plane in flight, knowing that the people on the plane and on the ground will survive, and -maybe- it’s possible to find the family given the information he has?

bob March 29, 2006 12:27 PM

@Tom: The egyptians (may have) had a pilot intentionally try to crash the aircraft: Egypt Air flight 990 back in ~1999.

@Roy: I was thinking overnight might give them time to come up with a counter-plan. If you dont let them know til right before takeoff they might not be able to think up a countermove.

jayh March 29, 2006 12:30 PM

Regarding ‘training’ of flight crew:

The operative word is ‘experienced’; not someone who’s taken a few hours of ‘self defense’ courses. Not someone whose experience consists of contests with fellow class members on padded mats.

Training helps your odds a bit, but unless your ‘training’ included real street fights, or no holds barred conflicts with skilled opponents, it won’t do that much.

Pat Cahalan March 29, 2006 12:45 PM

Didn’t we do this thread pretty thoroughly in December?

What are the hijackers trying to achieve… getting a plane to go to some other destination, or killing everyone on board?

In either case, arming passengers isn’t a good idea. Most people don’t have any idea how to use a weapon and many people (even ones that are trained in their use) won’t use them effectively for various reasons. If it comes down to “jump ’em before they kill us all”, sheer weight of bodies piling on is more effective than people individually trying to connect with a bat on a crowded plane.

If you think that a mob of passengers with baseball bats is going to take on a couple of guys with guns, I think you’re incorrect. If they’re convinced that the hijackers are going to blow up the plane, sure, but if they think they’re just going to Cuba they’re probably going to sit there.

Coercing the pilot by kidnapping his family (or threatening passengers) again will only really work to redirect the plane. If I’m a pilot and I think flying to a particular destination is going to save people, I’ll redirect the plane.

But I won’t open the door. Just my $0.02.

Pat Cahalan March 29, 2006 12:50 PM


The FBI Guide has a knife disguised inside a fake bullet.

“We’ll hide this biowarfare device inside this old nuclear weapon casing! Nobody will look for it there!”

AG March 29, 2006 3:31 PM

Forget booze on the flight.. BLAH I’M a moron…
Why give everyone “weapons” just give them glass bottles of their favorite beverage.
In case of terrorist attack break glass and attack terrorist.

Besides everyone would be way more willing to attack a trained killer if they were all loaded.

Nato Welch March 29, 2006 5:50 PM

I often imagine some usably sharp blades made of plastic, fashioned in such a way that they have no sharp edges until //snapped in half//. Going through security, they’d be harmless-looking rounded plastic sheets with some thin spots. After being snapped, however, they turn into bladed weapons.

Moderator March 29, 2006 6:20 PM

JD, I asked you just two days ago to stop flooding these comment threads. In the last 12 hours alone, you’ve racked up more than 40 comments, all of which I’ve just deleted.

Since you don’t seem to be able to understand what a reasonable amount of participation would be: for you, from now on, it’s two comments per day.

Sean Tierney March 29, 2006 6:56 PM

Bruce, it’s far simpler than titanium strength sharpened creditcards as weapons- anyone can carry a full bottle of wine on an airplane. Break it over the armrest and you have a far more effective weapon than any pocketknife they strip you of when you pass through the metal detector. I love TSA.


Filias Cupio March 29, 2006 7:00 PM

No communication between cabin and cockpit is a bad idea – you’ll lose lots more people to medical emergencies than you’ll save from terrorism.

No interior door between cabin and cockpit: I once objected to this for the same reason (pilot can’t inspect the plane) but an ex-cockpit-crew person said that this really isn’t something that they need to do.

Andrew March 29, 2006 11:34 PM

The weak link isnt the passengers anymore. Show up just before a flight at the terminal with pictures of (both) pilots’ families holding that morning’s newspaper. Show the pilots the pictures. Tell them if the plane makes it to the original destination it would be bad.

Pilots are professionals. They are expected to make decisions that maximize the survival of their passengers in situations where their own lives are forfeit, casualties of the situation. So (to paraphrase Spider Robinson in one of his terrorism article in the Globe and Mail) threatening to “put out your child’s other eyeball” would probably not result in another September 11th. It would result in an extremely upset pilot, probably a psychological casualty regardless of what else happens.

Also, the airlines have thought of this and security procedures involving duress are in continuous effect. I choose not to be more specific because the techniques depend on obscurity. Not much comfort, I know, but better than nothing.

david March 30, 2006 2:05 AM

my favourite is on page 32. A knife disguised as a gun cartridge.
“excuse me sir, do you have a knife on you?”, “no officer, only this 9mm cartridge”, “that’s fine sir, please board the plane”

Neighborcat March 30, 2006 4:52 AM


The simple fact that so many of you have spent time thinking about clever ways to defeat/enhance airline security is a symptom of the real problem in the US today: the complacency of the public.

The 9/11 planners could not have dreamed that they would achieve their goals so completely; to instigate an armageddon-style showdown between Western governments and Islam. Bush, with his schoolyard bully mentality has danced to Bin Laden’s tune perfectly.

Get this: NOTHING CHANGED ON 9/11,
other than a sharp reduction in hijackings. People still die. They die for the best of reasons, they die for no reason at all. Everyone dies. So are we hoping to prevent death? We should be fighting for the ability to live what life we have free from coercion. I haven’t heard of any “terrorists” planning to tap my phone calls or place surveillance cameras in my house.

Why not sit around and figure out some clever ways to get Americans to vote?

goose March 30, 2006 6:04 AM


Indeed. I do not live in the US, and I would feel much safer if Bush could be ousted and the foreign policy of the US changed. BUT this is a security blog… thinking about security is what we do. Maybe some other blog will focus in the issues that you point out.

Stuart Houghton March 30, 2006 10:14 AM

re: arming all passengers.

There are so many problems with this idea that it is difficult to know where to begin.

Even putting aside the fact that rather than having one or two suspected threats on board you now have a potential 2-300 threats, each armed with a Virgin Atlantic-branded shiv (perhaps First Class passengers could be given a pearl-handled low velocity firearm as a take home gift) how are you going to ensure that you have a planeload of passengers who
A) know how to handle a weapon
B) are willing to use it and
C) can be trusted to only break out the blades when there is an actual Officially Recognised Terrorist Threat as opposed to there being a funny-lookin’ guy in aisle six.

Cabin crews have enough problems trying to restrain Liam Gallagher and sundry pissed-up chavs as it is.

Dan March 30, 2006 10:32 AM

Okay. So it’s a weapon. And they can be smuggled aboard trains, planes and automobiles. But this does not make them vouchers for buy one get one free at Burger King

MS March 31, 2006 4:25 PM

@ Stuart Houghton
“Even putting aside the fact that rather than having one or two suspected threats on board you now have a potential 2-300 threats,”

Stuart, isn’t that what you already have in many, if not most, places in the US already? Does mass random violence break out on a regular basis? No. You might claim that is because of the presence of the police, but they are rarely on the spot at the time and thus it is actually the presence of accountability as implemented by the police (and justice system), rather than the police themselves directly that gives rise to this. Such accountability does exist for plane passengers, and given their ‘captivity,’ arguably to a much more effective degree, even though it may not be actually administered until they land. Furthermore, I would suggest that, given the financial, security and other implicit (mental stability etc.) hurdles to getting on a plane, along with the shared sense of risk in being airborne, plane passengers are less likely than a random cross section of civilians to resort to violence.

Now, anti-terror measures might be ‘less the ideally effective’ when trying to catch a single terrorist trying to board a plane, but as the number of them trying to get on the same flight increases, their risk of compromise by the good guys rises. Furthermore, it rises not linearly, but exponentially. Clearly if the associated risks rise more slowly than this, steps we can take to increase the number of hijackers required for a successful takeover are a step in the right direction and this is exactly what arming a random, but reasonably large percentage of passengers does. Without weapons, any group of hijackers is all but assured that the passengers are unable to respond effectively and thus the required number of hijackers for a successful takeover, and by implication the chances of stopping them, are low. With a significant number of passengers armed with weapons that can incapacitate individuals but not the plane, the odds shift dramatically in our favour, reducing the chance of successful hijacking to almost zero.

We can even identify the characteristic an ideal weapon would have…
– easy for non-experts to use effectively
– non lethal or, even better, able to incapacitate temporarily, ideally for the duration of the flight with minimal after/side effects
– useable from a distance
– easy to conceal
– single shot
– able to defeat those defensive measures that could be hidden from ground based pre-flight security
– traceable to the passenger who was issued the weapon

The weapons that best match the above list of requirements are Taser-type devices. For this reason, I would argue than some percentage of passengers should be issued with them or similar weapons. The percentage would vary from, say, 40% to 90% so hijackers could never know they’ve collected them all, would be hopelessly outnumbered and would be unable to turn their backs on anyone. If the cabin door is Taser-proof, which they pretty much were even before 9-11, what’s the worst that could happen? There’s a taser fight, a lot of people wake up wearing handcuffs and it’s all sorted out on the ground. Far FAR better that, surely, than the ridiculously vulnerable situation we find ourselves in now where a single crack in the security gives total control of the plane to the hijackers.

Pat Cahalan March 31, 2006 4:45 PM

@ MS

I agree with Stuart on this one. There are essentially no weapons that an unskilled person can wield effectively in this scenario. I’ve had a very small amount of weapons training and I wouldn’t trust myself with any sort of hand-to-hand weapon in a crowded airplane, let alone a complete neophyte.

In the hands of an untrained person, in close quarters like that of an airplane cabin, about the only weapon I can think of that is less likely to damage an innocent bystander than the intended target is a set of brass knuckles, and most people are abysmally ineffective when it comes to trying to throw a punch.

A taser is a remarkably bad idea, since people assume that they’re not lethal and thus will be inclined to use them in situations that don’t require them -> you’ll wind up with lots of people getting tasered that aren’t terrorists, and some of them will have pacemakers or epilepsy or some sort of heart defect, etc… any of which could suffer severe consequences from a taser attack. A taser fight (your worst case scenario) is not a trivial event.

MS April 1, 2006 8:03 PM

OK, how about a pocket in the seats that only opens when the a member of the flight crew press a button. Passengers would never know which seats had empty pockets and which had a Taser and they could not use them unless the flight crew or plain clothes security activated the button, which in turn would not happen unless there was a hijacking. At that point the risk of one or two passengers suffering a heart attack/epilespsy is the least of your concerns. This solution would also have the advantage of eliminating the need to issue and collect the Tasers prior to and after each flight.

Stuart Houghton April 3, 2006 9:08 AM

OK, how about a pocket in the seats that only opens when the
a member of the flight crew press a button.
Passengers would never know which seats had empty pockets
and which had a Taser and they could not use them unless the
flight crew or plain clothes security activated the button,
which in turn would not happen unless there was a hijacking.
At that point the risk of one or two passengers suffering a
heart attack/epilespsy is the least of your concerns. This solution
would also have the advantage of eliminating the need to issue
and collect the Tasers prior to and after each flight.

That’s it – perfect! Problem solved. There is absolutely no downside to this effective anti-terror measure.

Congratulations, you are now the head of Homeland Security. The post comes with a modest stipend and, I believe, there is a hat.

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.