by Austin Bay
July 23, 2002
Part Two of Five
I'll call him The Concerned Aviator. He flies for a major
airline. He collects stories, from passengers, of could-be weapons --
scissors, nail files -- that slipped through security. He mentions real
weapons: the discovery of a knife with a three-inch blade, left in a seat.
The perp? Whoa -- it slipped from an air marshal's pocket.
The Concerned Aviator's biggest gripes, however, aren't could-be
weapons. He believes the next terrorist who tries to take a plane will be
trounced by the passengers.
Chief among his big gripes is the phony premise of "positive bag
identification." So what if every bag on board connects to a boarded
passenger? A suicidal terrorist will pack his bag with TNT. "Until we get
x-ray and detection machines as sensitive as the Israelis have in every
airport," the Concerned Aviator says, "until every bag's examined, we're
But has the Concerned Aviator stopped flying? No way. He's a
pro, transportation's his job, and he believes if we're alert we'll handle
the risks. Next week, he'll fly into LAX, though he may cringe as he passes
the El Al counter, as he thinks about the Egyptian gunman who murdered two
Israelis there on July 4.
The Concerned Aviator provides a real-life insight into
America's homeland defense dilemma. He's smart and highly skilled. However,
we've got a big homeland to defend (many airports), and a complex, free
society has so many vulnerabilities.
The man understands he faces new risks. Drop flares from his
civilian plane, to confuse heat-seeking shoulder-fired anti-aircraft
missiles as he lands vacationers in Miami? After 9-11, the thought's crossed
That's been the story among transport and security pros
throughout America -- analyzing vulnerabilities, from the immediate to the
outlandish. "But using a civilian transport as an ICBM was farfetched," the
Concerned Aviator says.
The hijacked planes of 9-11 were, I point out, airborne versions
of Tim McVeigh's truck in Oklahoma. "And that's the vulnerability issue with
all transportation," he nods. "America's big. There're lots of trucks. What
do we watch? ... We'll improve air safety when we run real background
checks, on everybody, including ground crews," he says. "We need
professional air marshals, not jerks dropping jackknives. Stuff the
politically correct, security has to profile (passengers). We need a public
But apply his requirements to trains and buses? Costs increase
exponentially, as do the costs to civil liberty.
American experts like the Concerned Aviator see the
vulnerabilities and know how to minimize them, but the job's big. Three
years ago, a Coast Guard captain briefed me on his agency's financially
strapped condition. Yes, the Bush administration's multibillion-dollar
infusion of funds has to help, but billions don't shrink the length of U.S.
coasts. The captain was addressing the drug war when he said: "We're porous.
There's so much coast to cover. We have to rely on good intel, concentrate
on likely sea routes (of entry)." There are only so many cutters and
experienced Coast Guardsmen.
The week after Sept. 11, I spoke with a disaster-management
expert about terrorist targets in Texas. The Houston Ship Channel, "with all
those refineries," was his first reply. How do we protect it? "Hah," he
said. "You tell me."
"Good prior intelligence," I replied.
"Sure, stop it before it happens. But we need to get it (intel),
then get it out. I've had good experience working with the FBI, but there's
just so much to consider."
The Concerned Aviator and his fellow pros make several similar
points about homeland security. America's size means its borders can't be
fully sealed. With imagination, the vulnerabilities in a complex society
seem infinite. To paraphrase the Coast Guard captain, we must concentrate
assets on "the likely."
Background checks? The pilot means we must know who "we" are in
public transportation jobs. Take him a step further, and that means real
visa and immigration control. They also emphasize professional security
personnel, which means paying for pros.
The pilot's comment on public awareness is another way of
emphasizing public support. But the nub of homeland security remains
"knowing" -- getting timely, useful intelligence to the cockpit, to the
local cops, to the secretary of homeland security. When that problem is
solved, the Concerned Aviator won't sweat his flight to Miami.