Armed Crews Can Protect Airliners

DeLong Op-Ed in The Providence Journal

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The Senate recently passed an airport-security bill that contains some of everything.  It would make screeners into federal employees, despite the fact that no failure of screening occurred on September 11.  Responsibility for airport security is given to Department of Justice rather than Transportation.  All bags will be X-rayed, cockpit security improved, sky marshals added, and a new, high-level federal official put in charge.  The Federal Aviation Administration would be empowered, but not required, to allow pilots to be armed.


It is an odd grab bag of items, because anyone who thinks about the issue for 10 seconds knows that preventing airplane hijackings is simple.  Strengthen the cockpit door and provide the crew with weapons, training, and instructions never to cede control of the plane.  Cockpit crew should have pistols; flight attendants stun guns.  Hijacking would be a thing of the past, at minimal cost.  Add baggage screening to guard against bombs, and you will have a complete, effective system.


So why is this logical approach not taken?  Why do so many citizens, and almost all government officials, recoil in horror at the idea?  Why do they avidly embrace symbolic futility, such as banning steak knives at airports, removing the nail clippers from toilet kits, or cutting air travel to half its former level to allow time for hand searches of luggage?  Why do they insist on sky marshals, an expensive alternative that can actually increase risk, given that a marshal can be relieved of his or her weapon by the hijackers, who then have the only arms on the plane?


The abhorrence of the arm-the-crew approach says a lot about the state of American political culture.  The fear of the idea’s foes is not that arming the crew would fail but that it would succeed, spectacularly.  This success might then undermine an only-your-government-can-help-you mentality that keeps the political class of both parties in well-paid power.


The essential message, to which all voters should harken, is that this political class prefers that the citizenry be less safe than that greater safety be achieved through non-governmental mechanisms.


The mentality of suppressing any reform that would reduce reliance on government has become pandemic in recent years.  From this perspective, it’s better that Social Security go bust (eventually) than that any part of it be privatized; that mail service disintegrate rather than the Postal Service be changed; that inner city schools go totally dysfunctional rather than allow choice; that life-saving drugs be delayed rather than reform the Food and Drug Administration.


The size of government, which directly spends an estimated 35 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product and channels the outlay of hundreds of billions more, has created a constituency that fiercely opposes any retreat from state-run solutions, and that seems to be well aware of its class interest in holding every line, however destructive.


Society has been tolerating this sclerosis for years now, but the terrorist threat throws the issue into high relief.  We have an infinite number of targets to protect, and we cannot afford nonsense.  Congress may one morning be concerned about air travel, then in the afternoon focus on possible truck bombs near the Capitol, closing major streets around the Capitol buildings to heavy vehicles, with no provision for traffic disruption and its costs.


Each fear that catches attention is subjected to an assumption that the risk can be reduced to zero, and concern about efficiency and rationality are jettisoned.  Given that a usual objective of terror is to force a foe to spread resources too thin, al-Qaida’s members must be chortling.  The old military maxim says that anyone who tries to protect everything ends up protecting nothing.


Government agencies have essential tasks to perform, such as making war, collecting intelligence, and responding to emergencies.  To the greatest feasible extent, protection of private facilities should be left to private entities and to the concerned citizens, who can then figure out the best way to do it.


Air travel is a good place to start, because it is so blindingly obvious.  If you want still more protection, encourage able-bodied passengers to carry hunting knives, medieval maces, axes, or other hand weapons of choice.  It could be like exit row seating:  “Do you have your tomahawk, sir, and are you willing to do what is necessary if someone tries to hijack this aircraft?”


Perhaps eventually those tomahawks will get used on the Postal Service, Social Security, and all the other areas of national life that need a good bashing.


James DeLong is a senior fellow with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a public-policy organization based in Washington, D.C.