Next week, college student Nathaniel Heatwole will go to trial for smuggling prohibited items onto an airliner. The 20-year-old smuggled bleach, matches, molding clay and box cutters onto six Southwest Airlines flights from February to April. As a result, he might face up to 10 years in prison. Even though Heatwole’s act was largely a ploy for 15 minutes of fame, it did reinforce that airport safety has not, and perhaps cannot, markedly improve
by simply prohibiting metal items. Heatwole should not face severe punishment. Though mostly futile, his actions do warrant more thoughtful attention from the airlines.
Heatwole also left four packages in airplane restrooms; two were discovered days later in a routine lavatory inspection. The other two packages, planted on Sept. 14, were found a month later. The discovery finally led the Transportation Security Administration to Heatwole’s Sept. 15 e-mail, which detailed his actions since February and listed his name, address and phone number. Only then was the e-mail forwarded to the FBI and Southwest Airlines.
Heatwole described his behavior as an “act of civil disobedience,” thereby elevating himself to a group that includes Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman. In his famous essay on the subject, Thoreau wrote, “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.” Thoreau himself was jailed for withholding his poll tax, a payment he viewed as support of an unjust government. Were these the words that inspired Heatwole? And what is the injustice he rebelled against?
Since Sept. 11, 2001, all Americans have suffered the injustices, and more accurately, inefficiencies of the Transportation Security Administration. But Heatwole’s actions were hardly a revolution and look more like self-promotion. By leaving box cutters and fake bomb ingredients on planes, he demonstrated his own ability to slip through the system – a system we already knew was porous. Does anyone actually believe that as the Transportation Security Administration confiscates our nail clippers, pocket knives and box cutters, our domestic security improves?
Heatwole might not realize his most relevant act of rebellion was not sneaking on and off planes with clandestine packages – it was sending a simple e-mail and demonstrating how long it took to get a reply. In many ways, the timely movement of information was the problem of Sept. 11. We are eager to see if the government will eventually find a way to outlaw such e-mails, and punish Heatwole for their embarrassment.