Ask the pilot

Setting the record straight on security. Plus: Annie Jacobsen lives!

Published December 16, 2005 11:30AM (EST)

In response to last Friday's cover story on security and the shooting at Miami International Airport, nearly 50 letters have been posted on Salon. As is wont to happen in an open readers forum, the comments took on a life of their own, feeding off one another until most were simply letters about other letters. The main points of the article became somewhat lost in the fray -- garbled, misconstrued or outright misrepresented.

For one thing, I never contended that the presence of air marshals on commercial flights was, in itself, a bad idea. Neither did I say the marshals in Miami made the wrong conscious decision in firing on Rigoberto Alpizar. The story ran under the headline banner of "a horrible mistake." That was an editorial choice of Salon's editors. I agree that it was a horrible mistake, although the wording, and its prominent placement, tends to imply that the marshals had fired in error, or had broken protocol. I don't believe they did. It appears the men did exactly what they were trained to do. My problem is less with the shooting per se, though obviously it raises important questions, than with the system that set off the chain of events in the first place: our irrational obsession with the Sept. 11 template; our unhealthy fixation on terrorism in general; and the unabated growth of a security-industrial complex that already infiltrates too much of daily life.

We've also been watching too many movies, and often have highly unrealistic expectations of what a terrorist might or might not do. Consider this e-mail (edited slightly for clarity) from Salon reader "Oedipus," and his defense of the Alpizar shooting:

"Wouldn't it be ironic if the next terrorist plot involved a husband and wife team in which the husband acts erratically and runs towards the cockpit? After hearing pleas of mercy from the exasperated wife, the air marshals, along with all 98 passengers onboard, are torn to shreds by the 6.5 pounds of Semtex the husband detonates in his suitcase bomb -- the extra time bought by his wife allowing him to press the button."

It's true we shouldn't underestimate the cleverness of an adversary, which is the underlying point of Oedipus' letter. However, the entire scenario is needlessly theatrical. Do Palestinian suicide bombers jump up and down making spectacles of themselves before they blow up a bus? They don't have to, and neither would a man with a suitcase bomb. They board quietly, then surreptitiously detonate their explosives. There have been dozens of bombings against civilian airliners over the years. Not once has there been any need for the perpetrators to buy time before igniting their stash.

Next is this (edited for clarity) from Jonathen Versen:

"I am a firm believer in protecting our civil liberties; nevertheless I fail to see how being allowed to bring any and all sharp objects aboard a common carrier [an airline] is a civil liberty ... And you say, 'If the Sept. 11 terrorists had been unable to bring boxcutters aboard, they would have fashioned weapons from something else.' Okay, like what?"

The article contained a few examples, but the list is virtually endless: plastic or composite assault knives, broken bottles wrapped with tape, toxic chemicals -- almost anything. To put it bluntly, and at risk of repeating myself to the point of mantra: The 2001 attacks had nothing to do with airport weapons or airport security, and everything to do with our understanding and assumptions of skyjackings at that time.

An attack in the style of Sept. 11 is no longer a serious credible threat. We shouldn't drop our guard, and indeed we've adopted several beneficial protective measures, such as the armoring of cockpit doors, the allowance for crews to carry weapons, and so forth. But the greatest safeguard against an airborne takeover is the intangible one: a radical shift in the skyjack paradigm. People used to commandeer airplanes, and sometimes gain entrance to cockpits, merely by making threats, without weapons of any kind. Take me to Cuba, and all that. Crews were versed in what their training manuals called "passive resistance." Until 2001, it was a strategy that historically saved lives and avoided catastrophe. The reason Sept. 11 went off without hitch is because it was virtually guaranteed not to fail. The opposite is now true.

"The TSA restrictions on knives and tools are a dog-and-pony show designed to make the law-abiding feel better," comments Tom (last name withheld), an airline pilot trained in martial arts. "I could fashion a weapon and dispatch someone quite easily using my shoe laces, a credit card, a wine bottle, or even my ring. But the days of taking airliners by force are gone."

As for civil liberties, nobody said it was a person's right to carry sharp objects onto an airliner (though maybe, as I'm sure will be argued by a number of readers, it is). But because something can be banned doesn't mean it ought to be. Not when millions of dollars and millions of wasted man-hours are in the balance, and could be better spent elsewhere.

Assuming, that is, the American public actually hungers for reasonable and effective security, or is content with pretensions of it. "I agree with your point of view about security theatre," submits e-mailer Dave Jacque," but the majority of people equate intrusiveness with effectiveness."

Do they?

"One of the problems with security is that a successful approach yields a negative result -- nothing to show for your efforts," voices Joe d'Eon, an airline pilot and author of the "Fly With Me" podcast series. "By prohibiting small sharp objects, the kind many travelers are likely to be carrying, the agency can demonstrate that it is 'taking action'. The other job of the TSA is to make the public feel safe. While the confiscating of scissors may have no effect on actual safety, it may have an effect on public perception. There is some value in that, I suppose."

Are Jacque and d'Eon right? As for the alleged psychological value in rummaging through carry-ons for X-Acto knives, it's exceedingly difficult to have faith in the idea of coddling wrongheaded public perception, particularly when it involves millions of squandered tax dollars and colossal amounts of wasted labor. The future, maybe, is bleaker than I thought. All the vigilance in the world won't change one simple fact: It is only a matter of time before somebody, using one means or another, again attacks a jetliner. Already we're at full-security tilt. What will our reaction be then?

Let's switch settings for a moment, from airport to train station. Two months ago I was visiting Spain, and I spent some time on the Madrid subway. I also passed through Atocha Station, the city's commuter rail hub that suffered the bulk of the death toll during the March 2004 bombings that killed 191 people and injured almost 2,000 others. Walking through the passageways and corridors of Atocha, there are few reminders of the carnage. Security is noticeable, but unobtrusive. There's a simple and discreet memorial to the bombing victims. The U.K. Guardian describes it better than I can:

"The Atocha memorial lacks any hint of artistic grandeur. Yet its very banality is also somehow appropriate -- for this war will be won or lost not in some grand showdown but in a trillion tiny everyday encounters, like those of commuters pouring off a suburban train."

On the subway platforms and in the cars, there were no checkpoints, no metal detectors, no ominous security placards. To the best of my limited ability to understand Spanish, I heard no public address announcements urging people to look for suspicious packages or report unusual activity.

Here in Boston, on the other hand, a person can't travel two stops on the local subway without hearing the recorded voice of Gov. Mitt Romney imploring riders to watch for unattended packages and drop a dime on anyone who acts strangely. It's all part of a U.S. Department of Transportation campaign called Transit Watch, with the accompanying slogan, "See something? Say something." For those uncertain what a terrorist might look like, the MBTA has been handing out Transit Watch pamphlets that carefully outline the modus operandi of the typical evildoer. It advises passengers to watch for individuals who show visible signs of nervousness, including "excessive perspiration." (Come July, that ought to get just about everyone in Park Street station shuttled off to a barracks at Guantánamo Bay.) The front of the Transit Watch booklet, in a gesture so shamelessly Orwellian that at first glance I thought it was a parody pamphlet, features a logo with a little eye staring out at you -- like the one on the back of a dollar bill, except creepier and all too explicable.

All in the name of prevention, we're told. When I detailed my experience in Madrid to a friend, he snapped, "Yeah, we'll see how they react when they get hit again."

Except the Spanish, as victims, are sensible enough to realize that there's only so much you can do, and don't squander their resources on measures that do nothing to prevent bombings and everything to waste time and infringe on people's rights. The citizens of Madrid might be fearful of additional carnage, but they're also sensible and, in a quiet way, defiant. Our own reaction to terrorism has been anything but defiant -- other than dropping bombs and shooting rockets at people, most of whom have nothing to do with the problem.

Already New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, overseer of Gotham's buses and subways, has implemented random bag searches, and the TSA has begun dispatching armed "viper" teams to canvass the nation's railroads and public transit systems. I shudder to envision our reaction should a terrorist -- or a reactionary thug like Timothy McVeigh -- strike an American subway. New York, Boston, Philadelphia or Chicago would be brought to a grinding halt -- at least until the X-ray machines and soldiers were in place at every station.

In closing, for those whose diet doesn't include enough fear and skewed thinking, I recommend the new book by our old friend Annie Jacobsen. She has turned her 2004 online serial, which began after she shared a Northwest Airlines flight to California with a group of rambunctious Syrian musicians, into "Terror in the Skies -- Why 9/11 Could Happen Again," published by the Spence Publishing Company (Amazon sales rank: 100,448). If you're new to this story or would like a recap, click here and begin working backward.

I bring this up at my own peril. Two summers ago, after my five-part teardown of Jacobsen's articles, several Ask the Pilot regulars wrote to warn me that if I so much as mentioned her name one more time, they would never again read a word of mine. But considering her story's remarkable level of traction, and apropos of recent security news, I think it's worth mentioning -- with apologies.

To the best of my knowledge, books aren't normally released on Sundays, but in a perversely commemorative spirit, Spence made sure "Terror" hit the shelves exactly on Sept. 11, 2005. Since then, it has received some positive spin in places you might expect. "Terrorists might not have given up on planes," begins a review by Anne Morse, writing for National Review.

I couldn't agree more, albeit with totally different ideas of how, exactly, they might go about their business.

The central problem with Jacobsen's suppositions today are the same as they were in 2004: Why would gangs of foreign operatives, on practice missions, go around brazenly risking exposure in the middle of the most intensive anti-terror blitz in history? She asks us to assume that 12 men were deployed on Northwest Airlines flight 327, and that similar occurrences, routinely witnessed by passengers and crews, have been widespread all over the country -- and overseas as well. Personally, I've never spoken to an airline pilot who vouches for this conspiracy.

By meager extrapolation, there would have to be dozens, or possibly hundreds, of operatives, flying around the nation conducting not-so-covert operations. None of whom have ever been caught. The government, Jacobsen maintains, is complicit by refusing to acknowledge these so-called dry runs, and/or turning a blind eye.

Why does that strike me as so much paranoid fantasy?

And should we really be surprised? "The terrorists" are playing the role of latest invisible scare, just as the communists did before them -- a rallying cry for those who traffic in fear. Sadly, widespread delusions of unseen, anti-state conspirators in our midst are nothing new in human history. When I interviewed her, Jacobsen went to lengths to assert that she is not a right-wing crackpot, or even a conservative. At last check on Amazon, Jacobsen's "Terror" is paired with a title by Paul Sperry called "Infiltration: How Muslim Spies and Subversives Have Penetrated Washington." Gary Boettcher, president of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations, has penned one of "Terror's" two editorial reviews (both are but a single sentence long).

Says Boettcher, "The terrorists are probing us all the time." For what it's worth, I never heard of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Association until reading about Annie's book.

And as for obvious self-promotion, two can play at that game. If you're looking for a stocking-stuffer from Amazon, I suggest this one.

Next time: Nothing about security. A look at the Southwest Airlines incident in Chicago; another crash in Nigeria; and what happens when a plane gets hit by lightning?

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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