A disturbed man, Joseph Andrew Stack, flies a single-engine Piper airplane into a Texas federal office building. He kills himself and an IRS worker. It is tragic and awful – and it points up vulnerability in our society that could be exploited by terrorists. But it is not a reason to impose new restrictions on private flying.
General aviation–the blanket term given to everything that is not a scheduled airline or cargo flight–has not to this point in time been subject to onerous security. Yet there are those calling for a security regime to be introduced after the Texas incident.
To apply even modest security on general aviation would be a daunting task because airplanes fly from small airports to big ones; and they fly 24 hours a day. Some are light aircraft like Stack’s and others are corporate jets and charter aircraft, all the way up to airline size.
Charter companies and corporations could take the hit from expensive security. But it would mortally wound private flying and not increase security at all. Elaborate evasions–such as flying from deserted roads, farms and abandoned airfields–might increase. What now happens in the light would happen in the dark.
Here I should declare that I have held a private pilot’s license for nearly 40 years, although I no longer take to the air as I once did (whenever possible).
The aviation community has always known that airplanes are easily used as weapons in the hands of suicidal pilots or if rigged with off-the-shelf technology. To turn a light aircraft into a crude missile you need purpose, know-how and access to a hobby shop or an electronics retailer in the local mall.
Over the years, I have heard many discussions on what you can cause an unmanned aircraft to do. No one was planning to do so, but it is a subject that used to come up from time to time in pilots’ lounges: airport facilities where pilots hang out, get weather briefings or just to tell stories of derring-do.
Pilots belong to a freemasonry that binds people of disparate backgrounds together in a common love of aviation and common bad experiences. Horseman and boaters enjoy something similar but not with the depth and passion that unites pilots, whether they are weekend stick jocks (their term for themselves) or former military pilots, who have done extraordinary things and now fly for the airlines or just fly privately.
Pilots tend to revere anything that leaves the ground and to know that part of the thrill is the high price that will be paid if things go wrong. As Walter Hinton wrote in 1926: “Recently, a man asked whether the business of flying ever could be regulated by rules and statutes. I doubt it. Not that flying men are lawless. No one realizes better than they the need for discipline. But they have learned discipline through constant contact with two of the oldest statutes in the universe–the law of gravity and the law of self-preservation. Ten feet off the ground these two laws supersede all others and there is little hope of their repeal.”
At Barron Hilton’s ranch in Yerington, Nev., I saw astronauts riding in gliders, hot air balloons, as happy as they were going into space. Every form of flight deserves the same respect as another. The price of failure is the same: death.
One of the great freedoms in America is that anyone can learn to fly and can fly from the smallest airport; really just a field that has been surveyed and leveled to JFK or LAX. You will need a reservation to land, but you can do it.
Aviation is truly one of the last egalitarian pursuits. You can put passengers through a metal detector at the general aviation terminal at Washington Dulles International Airport, but what about a farm in Kansas?
One of the many firms that is part of the anti-terrorism industry, STRATFOR, has been proselytizing about the dangers of private aviation. Sure there is a remote danger there, as there is with the availability guns or the vulnerability of city water supplies.
Flying is one of the great freedoms. And to those who are lucky enough to fly, it is the supreme achievement in the ascent of man. To curtail it is to make a terrorist somewhere chortle. –For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate
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In a time of terrorism, the enemy within is the most pernicious.
He is the terrorist who can strike at any time. He is the good neighbor who harbors hate. He is he loner who craves to be part of something larger than his own life promises.
Most disturbingly, he is probably a third or fourth generation immigrant.
He is the lethal misfit.
He is also the unique product of the modern world: The immigrant who doesn’t assimilate into the society in which he lives, but connects with the world of his ancestors through technology. He may be a Nigerian youth living in London, Madrid, or Houston, but in his mind he lives in Nigeria because technology makes it possible to do so.
Britain is filled with pockets of immigrants who choose not to assimilate, enjoy the privileges of British society, and deny their nationality.
A few years ago I met a young woman in Doha, Qatar, who covered her head with a scarf and spoke with an English accent.
“Oh, you’re English,” I said, thinking we might talk about the old country.
Stiffly, she said, “I was born there, but I am an Arab.”
Before taking a job with Al Jazeera’s Web site in Doha, she had never been out of England. But psychologically, she had grown up in the Middle East and was indifferent to the culture and the people who had taken in her family and educated her with tax money. She closed her ears in school and opened them in her local mosque. She is typical of immigrant children from Houston to Rome and from Toronto to Sydney, alienated by their own intent, angry and vulnerable.
When America’s immigrants were pouring in through Ellis Island, N.Y., they were coming to a new life; and however hard, it was going to be an American life. Sentimentally, they might sing rebel Irish songs in Boston, dance the polka in St. Paul, Minn., and mix the marinara sauce in Hoboken, N.J., but the tickets that brought them here were one-way tickets. The only contact with the world they had left was by slow, sea-borne letters.
Now, with technology, all immigrants’ tickets to America are essentially roundtrip tickets. Immigrants no longer have to consider assimilation as a worthy or a necessary goal.
There are reasons of national unity to work against the Balkanization of America. However, the clear and present danger is from those likely to fall prey to the malicious excesses of politics or religion.
It is frightening that a wealthy young man from Nigeria, Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, tried to blow up an inbound airliner on Christmas Day. But the home-grown rebel–like the five, middle-class young men who are now being held in Pakistan–is more concerning.
Gradually, screening of passengers will improve and the intelligence community will handle information better. In the meantime what are we, and other nations like Britain, to do about our citizens who hate the lands that have given them so much? Spy on our neighbors? Inform on our friends?
If we do those things, the enemy within will have won; and if we don’t, the enemy within may win with an act of terrorism. –For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate
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