Flying the Guarded Skies

I think I’ll leave the big-picture opining for another time. I don’t know how many Americans will be interested in one person’s experience flying domestic airlines this past weekend. But that’s what’s 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 you’re reading this I’m just fine, since I would have to have made it home to transfer my notes to the computer.

Perhaps 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.

I don’t 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.

(It 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 wasn’t allowed on the flight and was later arrested. And the next morning they were searching checked luggage as well as carryon bags.)

When 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.

In Seattle the searchers looked at me a little funny when they found several copies of Albert Jay Nock’s 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 harmless.


I 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 there’s a solid, empirically defensible reason to do so.

While 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 doesn’t 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.

(My 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.)

Ending 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, I’d like to see some consideration of the hassle for the airlines and the loss of convenience to passengers (though I don’t 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.

The 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 didn’t think there would be a repeat. I’ve been right so far, but who knows? If I had a notion what the next step might be I certainly wouldn’t post it here.


The 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.

Here’s 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.

Allowing 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.

The 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.

The 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.

The Flight 93 passengers apparently had the advantage (if that’s 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.


This is not to say that most law enforcement and public-safety people haven’t 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.

It 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.

In 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 agency’s 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.

The fact that WTC occurred doesn’t 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.


For 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. That’s 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.

What 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?

Such 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 and requirements.

Even 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 didn’t, 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.

I can’t 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.


I 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.

Here’s an opening from me. I believe I’ll 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.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).