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Where Does It End?

by Michael Z. Williamson

September 25, 2001 -- Previously, I discussed the various current airport security measures, and their relative effectiveness. Now, let's look at real solutions, rather than interim stopgaps.

Hey, you, American!

Do you feel safer with the new FAA security regulations? Do you think terrorism is less likely, with all those precautions?

Well, let's look at what we've done. There are no more knives allowed on flights. We are even more helpless than we were, and that's the key, isn't it? But the key to what?

What are you going to do when one of these extremists actually gets a legitimate job as a pilot, and sits for years, waiting for an opportunity?

Think it can't happen? Well, consider this: Everyone assigned to Andrews Air Force Base, whether or not they support Air Force One, has very detailed security investigations done. They are all held to the highest standards possible. And yet, should there be a fire aboard Air Force One, the Secret Service will not allow the base fire department aboard, and will instead deal with it themselves. They are afraid that a mole snuck into the service, or bribed later, might either attack a president (who would not even have been president when this tentative plot was started), or will reveal details of the inside of Air Force One that they don't want known.

Paranoid? That's their job. But if they are afraid of that, how unlikely is it that a pilot could be a mole, waiting to crash a plane? And what could you, without even a pocketknife, do about it?

Ridiculous? What about more credible threats, then. Do you think there's any reason a terrorist can't wrap several feet of piano wire, thereby to make a handy garrotte, around his wrist under his watch? Or inside the heel of a shoe, where it will read as nails? Heck, an icepick or knife can go there. Knives can be hidden in pens, or in the hinges of briefcases.

Why not ban ALL metal objects aboard planes?

Of course, the same trick could be done with 100 lb test nylon fishing line. And there are ceramic, plastic, composite, and even titanium (a very low signature metal) knives on the market. Five minutes with a $20 belt sander can turn an ice scraper into a chisel-edged blade for emergency security measures. I know--I've done it. I've also made G-10 (epoxy/glass laminate), carbon fiber, and Lexan blades for customers. These were legitimate military and security personnel, but it's not really esoteric knowledge. Any high school kid can do it with stuff he can buy at the hardware store. Some of the commercially made ones are designed to hide in a necktie. If it's sharp enough to hack a seatbelt, it's sharp enough to hack a throat. What justification is there for doing this?

Well, as one military officer told me, "If I can sneak one aboard, it means security is inadequate and a terrorist could have."

So, we should search everyone with a thorough frisk, and check their shoes, ties, and carry on baggage (if we still allow it…more on that later), as well as any coats or jackets, right? No jewelry that could hide wire or cord.

But what about shoelaces? As for no carry-ons, what about diaper bags? Think a terrorist won't hide behind a baby? I hope not, because they have and they did on September 11. Then, women usually have purses, in which they often carry sanitary supplies they need with them.

What about camera bags? Cell phones? Bombs and guns have been hidden in both. If your only goal is to bring the plane down, nerve gas could be hidden in a can of hairspray, or a bottle of aftershave.

So, we could just require everyone to strip, and wear issued coveralls for the duration of the flight.

But people can, and have, still managed to smuggle stuff through security. Ask any prison guard. Are you willing to take the probing finger, (two of them if you're female!) to assure your safety? Really? And how will you explain this to your 12 year old daughter and 7 year old son?

Hadn't thought about that, had you?

Are you coming to the paranoid conclusion that you can't stop someone from hurting you?

Well, good. That's not paranoid. It's reality. The above ideas came off the top of my head, after years of dealing with this. Think a dedicated terrorist can't be more creative?

But that's only half the equation. We've demonstrated that making ourselves more helpless won't accomplish anything except making us more helpless. It's odd that a certain segment of society continues to insist on this as a response.

So what about the reverse? Making ourselves LESS helpless?

The obvious two approaches are to arm the pilot (we are already trusting him with our lives, after all), and to have the sky marshals back.

Of course, both of those cost money, and can be defeated--if you fly the same route often enough, you'll see who the marshals are. If they change routes, you can still spot them as they bypass security or show ID. Garrotte the marshal (or both), while someone else tackles the pilot. Hey, these terrorists are willing to die for a cause. Think they won't sacrifice four to bring down a plane?

We again come to that which you are reluctant to consider: letting anyone with rudimentary safety training carry weapons.

Think about it--the terrorists ARE GOING to get weapons aboard. That's a fact, and not subject to dispute.

If you don't try to stop people from carrying legitimate defensive weapons, it makes security that much easier--your only concern is that they have ammunition that won't punch gaping holes in the airframe. If they beep at the security point, you simply inspect that they have the appropriate ammo, and wish them well.

Certainly, a terrorist COULD arrange to outgun everyone on the flight, including the cabin crew and a marshal…but that is at least as hard as arranging to be the ONLY armed attacker under our current approach. It can't be worse in end result.

You think people will shoot each other over spilled drinks?

Well, now you ARE being paranoid. First of all, a miniscule number of people would be so disposed. Second, it's illegal for such people to be armed in the first place. Third, the result of such would be detention by the OTHER armed passengers aboard. No one is going to start a fight under those circumstances, unless they are suicidal. And if they are…

…that's EXACTLY the reason the rest of us SHOULD be able to be armed.

Which would you prefer? Head to toe search and grope, prod and poke, paper coveralls and Brave New World treatment…

…or a helpful attendant asking, "Can I get you anything? Coffee? Tea? Low velocity .380?"

Copyright 2000, 2001 by Michael Z. Williamson. Permission is granted to copy in toto for non-profit purposes, provided due credit is given. Please inform the author at when making use of it. Please mention as the source of first publication.

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Congress have no power to disarm the militia. Their swords, and every other terrible implement of the soldier, are the birthright of an American... The unlimited power of the sword is not in the hands of either the federal or state government, but, where I trust in God it will ever remain, in the hands of the people. — Tench Coxe, Pennsylvania Gazette, Feb. 20, 1788.

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