When I lived in China back in the early 1990s, there was a story going around about a China Airlines flight in which both the pilot and the co-pilot had left the cockpit and then, on their return, found the door locked. They reportedly got a fire ax, and with the whole planeload of freaked out passengers watching in horror, started wailing on the metal door. The co-pilot then turned, and seeing the panic developing, calmly drew the curtain across the aisle, hiding their work from view. The axe’s bashing continued until they broke the latch and got back to the controls.
Lucky this was before the 9-11 attacks! Now, because some terrorists forced their way into crew cabins and took over a few planes, virtually all aircraft have reinforced cabin doors that cannot be broken into. Predictably, this panicky response has led to a new kind of risk: mass passenger deaths by pilot suicide. A young Lufthansa pilot, apparently with a death wish but wanting to have his demise make a murderous impact, waited until the pilot had left for the loo, then locked him out and sent the plane into the side of a French Alp.
So what do we do now? Put a toilet in the cabin of every plane so that neither pilot or co-pilot ever has to leave her or his colleague alone in the cabin during a flight?
Of course, we’ve already got a problem since another solution that the FAA came up with to terrorists on planes commandeering a flight was to allow pilots, most of whom are retired military pilots, to bring a gun on board. Of course, that is only a good idea if the pilot is mentally stable and a good shot. What if the pilot is the whack job? The gun just makes the job of destroying the plane that much easier.
It is certainly a tragedy that 149 innocent people including a class of 16-year-olds and a couple of babies, went to their doom along with the deranged Lufthansa co-pilot, but the disaster shows how nuts our societies have become because of overblown fears of terrorism.
Just think about the insane delays, the fraught confrontations, the needless X-rays, the missed flights and the sheer nuttiness of the post-9-11 security screenings — especially in the US. We have to remove our shoes because one guy tried to light up a “shoe bomb” that probably wouldn’t have done anything to the plane anyhow. I remember waiting in line once as a TSA inspector removed the booties from a three-month-old baby in a carrier at Chicago O’Hare because the rules said shoes had to come off and go through the X-ray machine. Never mind that a dedicated bomber could down a plane by bringing in six 3 oz bottles of nitro in a sealed plastic bag without any problem — enough to blow out the side of the plane from his seat. (Thankfully, fears touted by the government two years back of alleged terrorist plans to stuff explosives up their colons for detonation in flight never materialized, or we’d all be getting proctological exams now before boarding!)
There are so many ways someone with determination could get through any kind of screening and onto a plane with either a weapon or a bomb it’s ridiculous.
Case in point: Recently my daughter arrived from London on a Virgin flight to Orlando with a connection to Chicago. The flight arrived too late for her to get through customs and make her connecting flight so she had to spend the night and take another flight in the morning. But her bag was sent on ahead of her on the original connecting flight! So if she’d been a terrorist, that bag could have taken down the plane and she could have disappeared. Nice job TSA. I’ve also been on flights where my baggage got left behind and was then sent on to me later. That kind of thing would be easy for a terrorist to arrange to happen.
It got so bad that, after the “underwear bomber” episode, that for a while some of us who Homeland Security had it in for found ourselves having to strip to underwear, or at least get seriously groped, before boarding a plane. Screening algorithms also led to people being barred from flights because they had a common name: Muhammad Islam, for example, the arab equivalent of John Doe. Or Ted Kennedy, who found himself held back because he was on the list, clearly recognizable as he was! One 75-year-old nun kept finding herself on a no-fly list because she regularly flew down to Ft. Benning Georgia to protest the activities of the US Army’s School of the Americas (a “school” that for years has, ironically, trained government terrorists in Latin America).
I’ve also watched suppliers wheeling goods for the terminal shops right past security — boxes of foodstuffs, stacks of bundled newspapers and magazines, tourist goods, etc. If someone wanted to smuggle a weapon on a plane, all they’d need to do would be slip it into one of those supply trolleys, or even get a job as an airport worker. I’m sure there are plenty of ways that could be done by a ground crew worker too, who deals with loading baggage or prepping the plane.
What it boils down to is acceptance of risk, and how much we want to do to try and reduce it.
The US has gone way too far in my view. Of course the worst thing is the obsessive Big Brother spying that the government has been ramping up ever since 9-11, from the NSA’s efforts to “sweep up” all communications to the Patriot Act, with its wholesale evisceration of the Bill of Rights. But there are many other costs that we are now paying for this obsessive fear of terror and official and media fearmongering.
Air travel is just one example of this madness.
Take our recently built YMCA. It has five locker rooms. Really, five. Why? Because there’s such a fear these days of predatory pedophiles abroad in the land that the planners of the new building thought they’d best have male and female locker rooms for adults over 18, then separate male and female locker rooms for boys and girls under 18, and a family locker room with large stalls and doors and separate lockable shower rooms for families with small children (If we get a case somewhere in the US of a 16-year-old abusing a nine-year-old, the Y will probably have to add two more locker rooms, so they can have two for teens and two for pre-teens). You’d never see such a thing happen in Europe, where women go to the beach topless and children run around naked without a fuss, and where there’s usually some woman sitting in the public men’s room by the urinal collecting tips for keeping the place clean while the guys relieve themselves a few feet away.
It can get pretty crazy. I recently brought a house guest — a visitor from Spain in town to perform a keyboard recital — to the local Y with me, so he could swim some laps. He had come along with just a bathing suit and a towel, but no wallet, figuring he wouldn’t have to worry about leaving it in a locker. But the staff wouldn’t let him in without a photo ID! When I said he was a guest at my house, and I am a Y member, they said that didn’t matter. “Rules are rules,” was the line. We had to return home to get his wallet and passport.
Music teachers at universities who teach children under 18 these days need to send their fingerprints to the FBI, again for fear they may be pedophiles (this while faculty sexual predators of students are often ignored). Some excellent musicians refuse to teach at such schools because of this absurd requirement. Who loses then? The kids.
And then there’s my pet peeve — police repression of hitch-hiking, a once-venerable practice that helped level society and allowed people to get to know each other across the land, as well as to help those without the money for a car or for bus fare to get places. It’s so bad lately that I’ve been threatened with jail by a thuggish local cop from a neighboring town who first lied that it was illegal to hitchhike in Pennsylvania, and then threatened to arrest me if I argued with him (actually it is only illegal to hitch in the state on a controlled access highway, or by standing in the roadway obstructing traffic). These days, the public is so terrified of hitchhiking that when I try it, usually the only people who pick me up are immigrants, who are used to hitchhikers. The joke is that police who are honest about it (like my town’s police chief), will confirm that society today in America is much much safer than it was back in the 1960s and 1970s, when I hitchhiked all over the country, and almost all the time, whether it was getting to class in college or going to visit a friend at a neighboring school.
Fear of terrorism, and miscellaneous dangers like pedophiles, pickpockets and foreigners, means we miss out on a lot in America. Few Americans travel anymore. The favored vacation is on a cruise ship, where the tourists are carefully insulated from the locals. And many countries are just blackballed from the tourism list because there might be a terrorist targeting Americans there.
Of course, foreigners are increasingly staying away from the US too. In part, this is because of our own government’s intrusive vetting of them before granting a visa (as happened to the A-list British pop singer Cat Stevens, who was barred entry a while back. In part, it’s also because foreigners are properly afraid of the militarized police here in the US, who can be pretty brutal to people who don’t speak the language. Recall the harmless elderly Indian man who recently was viciously thrown face down on the sidewalk of suburban Madison, Alabama by a cop because he kept saying “No speak English” as the cop shouted at him incoherently. That poor fellow, who had just come from India to babysit his new grandchild so that his son, legally working in the US as an engineer, could go to work. The victim. who had been strolling peaceably along the sidewalk through his son’s neighborhood admiring the houses, suffered a broken neck and paralysis that could reportedly be permanent. He’s not alone either. US police assaults on innocent tourists have been all too common — so much so that some countries in Europe warn about it.
The American nuttiness about and irrational fear of terrorism also has led to deaths. Police are quick to shoot and kill people that they “think” might be armed. Usually the victims of these shootings, which number over 1000 a year and are rising, are generally dark skinned, fitting the preconception of “terrorist,” though most acts of terror committed in the US have historically been the handiwork of white people. Prosecutors are also quick to try and label incidents — both crimes and incidents of police shootings, terrorism cases (not by police, but by their victims!).
Fear of terrorism is also expensive. There are over 2 million people in prison in America, and millions more who have prison records and so now cannot get decent jobs, or go to college. The cost of incarcerating people we’re afraid of, often for lengthy terms or for life, and of providing subsistence help to those whom we have tarred as felons and then left unemployable, is incalculable.
I attribute this rampant and corrosive fear in America to a combination of guilt and isolation. We know our country has too much stuff and too much power, and that we throw our weight and our bombs around and piss a lot of people off around the world, and so we fear those people. Here at home, those of us who have it good fear those who don’t, again not just because we are afraid they might take stuff from us, but because we feel guilty that we don’t do much to help them, instead fighting for lower taxes and fewer programs that provide help or relief for those in need. Meanwhile, we spend so much of our time inside a bubble, whether it’s our house and TV, our car, or our little work cubicle, that we don’t know or care about anyone outside our small circle of family and friends. When you don’t know people, and you also feel guilty, it leads to fear.
Terrorism plays to that fear. And political charlatans shamelessly play on it. Now we’re all paying the price, just as those 149 passengers and crew on the doomed Germanwings plane paid for the madness of giving it an unopenable terror-proof cabin door.