Do you feel safer now?
By John D. Turner
24 September 2001

In the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon by hijackers using commercial airliners as cruise missiles, the FAA has released new regulations regarding air travel, designed to make the skies safer for air travelers.

So, do you feel safer now?

Let's see. I can't check my baggage at the curb. I must show a boarding pass to get to the gates. My family and anyone else not actually flying on the plane who might want to see me off can't get past the security checkpoint. I can't have a knife of any size on my person or in my baggage at all. Or any other device that the security folks think I might be able to use as a weapon.

In view of the fact that none of these "measures" would have prevented the events of Tuesday, 11 September 2001 from occurring, I guess I will have to answer that question in the negative. No, I don't feel safer. In fact, I feel like the FAA is attempting to kiss my owie and tell me its ok, when in fact it is nothing of the kind.

It is no better than the idiotic question I kept being asked on my recent flights this year; "did you pack your own bags", a question that the hijackers themselves could have answered in the affirmative while connected to a lie detector, and passed with flying colors.

As usual, we are fighting the last war instead of the current one. The paradigm has shifted, and we have as yet not shifted with it. The events of 11 September have totally changed the calculus when it comes to aircraft hijackings. In the past, the hijackers were pretty much concerned with seeking asylum, the release of jailed comrades, or large sums of money. The rules were to go along with them, remain calm, and let the proper authorities handle the situation once you were on the ground.

No longer. Now, if a hijacker takes over your plane, you must assume the worst. Decisions must be made as though you were already dead. If it's a choice between taking out the hijackers and possibly dying, and crashing into a building and certainly dying, its the former decision that must be made; in any event you are probably dead. This is the decision made by passengers on Flight 93. A decision that left them dead, but spared the lives of countless individuals located at the hijacker's intended target.

The rules the FAA recently instituted, if well enforced, may help with preventing bombs from being smuggled on the plane preventing a Flight 103-type attack. They will do nothing to stop the new threat of suicide air attack via hijacking. For those inclined to sit back and let the Government protect them, this will be a rude awakening.

Various measures have been proposed to combat this threat. An "unbreachable" door to the cockpit, preventing access by hijackers so the plane can be safely landed. Arming the cockpit crew with side arms of various types. Putting plainclothes armed Sky Marshals on all flights. Training the cabin crew in unarmed combat techniques. Providing the capability to flood the cabin with "knock-out gas". All of these measures might help. There are pros and cons to each, and all will take some time to implement, from training time (and constant proficiency training to maintain skills in weapons and unarmed combat techniques) to refit time for adding the enhanced cockpit doors and gas fittings, to hiring an adequate number of Sky Marshals to cover all flights. What do we do in the meantime?

The hijackers Tuesday were armed with box cutters, and razor blades attached to plastic handles. You can be killed by these weapons, but usually not quickly unless you are taken by surprise. And it is necessary for the attacker to get close to you to inflict damage, which means that they can be taken down by one or more passengers. One person, armed with a gun on each plane could have handled the situation. But there were no guns on 11 September, and it is likely there won't be any on the next plane you fly on. So what do you do when a group of hijackers starts brandishing blades on your flight and begins breaking down the cockpit door?

In the end, it comes down to you, the individual. The situation needs to be resolved quickly, before the cockpit door is breached. The hijackers have to be taken down before they can kill or incapacitate the only people on board capable of safely landing the aircraft. There will be only a handful of them, and many of us. The hijackers can be brought down by shear weight of numbers. Some may well die in the attempt, but as we have seen, all will die, and many more besides, if the attempt is not made.

And if it is not done soon enough to save the pilots, it must still be done, even if it means all perish anyway, as on Flight 93. One has only to look at the pile of rubble that was once two 110-story buildings to see what may happen otherwise.

We are at war, whether our government formally declares it or not. We have been for some time now, but recent events have put that into sharp focus. This is a war unlike any other we have fought. It is a war with no fixed fronts, no uniformed enemy. It will be fought in countries overseas and right here at home. The enemy can be anywhere and strike anywhere, singly or in small groups. At any moment you may be put in a position where you are the only person who can act to foil an attack. It could be on a plane, train, or bus. It could be in a shopping mall, or at a school, or in your neighborhood. You may not have the time or ability to call the police or proper authorities. They may not be in a position to do anything if you could call. You may be it, all that stands between life and death for those who have been targeted.

In the early days of our country, we had a name for those who were ready at a moment's notice to put their lives on the line in defense of their country and their neighbors. They were called "Minutemen". Today, we must all be Minutemen, ready at a moment's notice to respond.

We can no longer expect to be able to float through life, leaving the driving to others. We must be aware of our surroundings and give thought to what we would do if. In military parlance, this is known as "situational awareness". What happens if the person in front of us turns out to be a hijacker? What would we do? What could we use as a weapon? How could we throw them off stride, delay their attack long enough to get the plane safely back on the ground? Like it or not, expect it or not, the lives of others could hinge on what we do (or don't do) in such a situation.

Ultimately, if we are to feel safer, we need to take the steps necessary to make ourselves safer. No amount of government rules and regulations can substitute for prudent planning and preparation on our part.