September 2, 2002
NEW YORK CITY -- Nearly a year has passed since the worst act of terrorism in America's history. The World Trade Center site is clear, the sky above is empty.
And fear of another deadly attack remains. A so-called miscommunication between pilot and air traffic controllers recently led the government to scramble two F-16s to escort a jet to Baltimore-Washington airport. America must prevent terrorists ever again from turning a civilian aircraft into a de facto cruise missile. Yet airline security remains a leaky sieve.
Security personnel routinely miss weapons and simulated explosives. Controls over who works for the airlines and provides airport services are weak.
It's time to arm pilots.
Many are former military personnel. And, explained Stephen Luckey of the Air Line Pilots Association to Congress: They "are willing and prepared to assume the responsibility for training and carrying a weapon."
Ellen Saracini, widow of one of the pilots killed on Sept. 11, said her husband favored arming pilots. Had they possessed guns on Sept. 11, she notes, "the loss of life and property damage could have been vastly different."
Yet the list of objections, shared by the Bush administration, remains long. There are fears of aerial shootouts -- ironically, from many people who favor using armed marshals to guard flights.
But as the Hoover Institution's Thomas Sowell points out: "The main reason for having guns for self-defense anywhere is deterrence." Arming pilots means no shot is ever likely to be fired. Anyway, planes can and have flown and landed after sustaining major structural damage.
Former Transportation Security Administration head John Magaw argued that marshals were the answer, since they "will do whatever they have to, to the point of giving up their own life, to make sure that that cockpit stays safe." Alas, there are only 1,000 sky marshals for 33,000 to 35,000 flights every day.
To patrol every flight would cost billions of dollars annually. And that's if the program was run well.
USA Today recently reported on scores of resignations, complaints about simultaneously over- and under-utilizing existing marshals, employing new marshals before completion of their background checks and abandonment of the precision marksmanship test. This a year after Sept. 11.
Some gun critics prefer Tasers, or stun guns. But wires break, the rechargeable batteries run down and Tasers may not penetrate thick clothing. Jeff Zack, spokesman for the Association of Flight Attendants, opines: "We're against the pilots having guns until we know that they're going to come out of the cockpit, into the cabin, to defend us and the passengers." Otherwise "what we end up with is planes getting to their destinations with a bunch of dead people in back."
But at least the plane would get to its destination. Arming pilots does not make the flight attendants and passengers worse off.
To the contrary, it makes hijackings less likely to occur.
And it insures that suicidal terrorists won't be able to use the plane as a weapon.
First arm pilots. Then debate whether they should ever leave the cockpit with their weapons.
John Magaw also contended that pilots were to focus on their jobs, getting the plane "on the ground as quickly as you can, regardless of what's happening back there." But doing so might be tough if armed terrorists smash down the door, roust the pilots from their seats and murder them.
One of the strangest objections to allowing pilots to carry firearms is that liability standards would have to be adjusted. This is a criticism that could only be raised in a society where litigation runs wild.
But as bad as it would be for an airline (and the government) to face cases arising out of an errant shooting, imagine the litigation nightmare from another successful terrorist assault. Limit liability for good-faith defensive efforts.
Litigation concerns seem particularly frivolous compared to the federal government's threat to shoot down a hijacked airplane. This is a better option than arming pilots? Transportation Security Administration head John Magaw is gone, fired by Treasury Secretary Norman Mineta. President George W. Bush should do the same to Secretary Mineta. And the Senate should overrule Majority Leader Thomas Daschle, D-S.D., and Commerce Committee Chairman Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., to bring legislation to arm pilots to a vote.
So long as there are hijackers willing to die attempting to kill Americans, someone on the plane must ensure that they die before gaining control. The best means to do so is to arm pilots.
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