Terrorist threat requires defensive measures

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, everyone has his or her own idea how to best prevent similar atrocities from occurring. Some Americans feel we should use a nuclear weapon to turn the entire nation of Afghanistan into one giant sand trap. Others feel we should probe deep inside Afghanistan and eradicate the heart of the infestation like a common exterminator.

Other Americans feel we should do nothing and try to understand the terrorists’ side. They feel if we respond with peace and perseverance during such hardships, those who devised the attacks will realize we aren’t “the great Satan” and will understand the type of people Americans really are.

OK, some of these ideas are more rational than others. Regardless of what course of action the nation decides, it is highly unlikely it will be any of those listed above. Sweeping retribution is wasteful in military resources and human casualties. The chances of hitting the guilty parties are small. And killing the innocent, aside from the obvious immorality, will only increase our enemies. Yet our enemies would only revel in a passive response, as they are allowed additional time to devise something new.

As the nation prepares for a heightened offensive, at home we must be ready to accept heightened defensive measures. Security has been augmented everywhere from government buildings to sports arenas. But nowhere are security personnel and management under more pressure than the airline industry. After all, through no fault of their own, the commercial flight industry has taken some of the country’s greatest hits economically, socially and emotionally.

Tensions across the nation are so high three gentlemen of Arab descent were asked to leave a Northwest Airlines flight they had recently boarded because other passengers, as well as the crew, felt threatened. Is it proper to treat people this way? No. Had I been on the plane, would I have felt more comfortable if they had left? Sadly, I probably would have. But on the flip side, would I be traveling alone if I was of Arab descent? No, not at this moment I wouldn’t.

Discrimination was, is and always will be wrong. And we have to return to a time, if possible, where everyone can ride an airplane and feel safe. The ambiguity of the current situation makes security difficult, as one cannot always tell the difference between a civilian trying to take a flight and a terrorist about to reveal a box cutter in his hand or a bomb strapped to his chest. Because we believe all people are innocent until proven guilty, airlines are forced to play a type of responsive defense: They must react to the act, so to speak. In these perilous times, when airlines are salient targets, it is in our best interest to grant airlines the most power with which to react.

Legislation headed toward Congress would create a permanent sky marshal force to improve airline security. A sky marshal would be a trained officer who would ride the nation’s planes back and forth across the country. They would be a type of on-craft security, and they would be equipped with a firearm that fires fragmentary ammunition – its broken pieces not strong enough to breach the hull of an airliner. The bullets were designed specifically for security officers who might be carrying a gun on an airplane.

Officers from numerous law enforcement agencies have come forward seeking such jobs. And a small force of sky marshals is already being trained. The bill has the support of the pilot’s union. In fact, laid-off pilots are considered to be the top potential candidates for the job because if something were to go wrong the marshal could then fly the plane.

The only sticking point in potential legislation is attaining the allowance to bring guns on the planes. The fear is legitimate, and strict policies are necessary to ensure each individual with a gun on a plane is who he says he is. But the severity of past situations demands such drastic legislation. Without a firearm, the sky marshal is just another individual – one man trusted to combat several. It wouldn’t work, given the disproportionate ratio. But firearms have an efficient way of evening out numbers very easily. Six nut-balls with box cutters against one trained marshal with a gun still leans in the marshal – and the passengers’ – favor.

The presence of a firearm certainly does escalate some risks, and not even the bill’s biggest supporters like the idea of bullets going off in an area as compact as an airplane hull. But the actions of Sept. 11 have brought the threat of airplane hijacking to a disgusting new level. When dealing with freedom-hating psychos, who would like nothing better than to ram the nose of an airliner into the first symbol of a land they have been programmed to detest, we suddenly have to look at ways of losing only a few passengers and crew instead of none at all.

Twenty years ago, the proposal of an armed marshal on an airliner would have seemed ludicrous and unnecessarily dangerous. Then again, 20 years ago pilot’s unions weren’t holding out for locked cockpit doors and the option of keeping guns in their own cabins (even though the passengers are safer with a gun in the hand of the trained marshal).

These are the times we live in, as depressing as they might be. And we should be taking every step we can to protect our citizens because it is highly unlikely the situation in the Middle East will come to an end peacefully, simplistically and permanently. We must give airline security forces the most effective tools possible to do their job in these not-so-friendly skies.


Chris Schafer’s column appears alternate Tuesdays.
He welcomes comments at [email protected].
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