I’ve been a frequent flier for more than 30 years. I’ve racked up several million “miles,” and I’ve been through security checks hundreds, maybe thousands, of times. I’ve been patted down, scanned and searched – my fair-skinned and blue-eyed contribution to statistics showing nobody is being “profiled.”
Today it’s clear the Islamists are training and sending forth new waves of would-be airline bombers. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab said as much after he tried to blow up Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day. Mr. Abdulmutallab’s holy mission from Yemen gave us another in our current series of wake-up calls. Lately, his kind have killed military recruiters in Little Rock, Ark., and military personnel and dependents at Fort Hood, Texas. They’ve also hatched a variety of other plots, thankfully interrupted.
We’ve heard much discussion about who is to blame for the mistakes that enabled Mr. Abdulmutallab to board his flight. Available screening technologies cannot detect the explosive Mr. Abdulmutallab carried. There also has been a new round of debate about the use of screening methods that focus on people and their behavior as opposed to things such as nail clippers, shampoo, and – most recently – a 4-year-old boy’s steel leg braces.
We all understand that there are trade-offs between increased security and, say, privacy, freedom of travel or freedom from perceived ethnic or racial discrimination. But as passengers, we have limited options. We have no ability to deny boarding to someone linked to terrorists; not even the airlines had access to the list that identified Mr. Abdulmutallab. Similarly, we have no control over the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) choice of screening equipment.
Perhaps most important, we cannot force TSA personnel to look at people carefully and actually think about their characteristics and behavior. Yet this option – screening and profiling – is the only one that directly presents an opportunity for effective passenger action. There is much we cannot do, but we can – our very own selves – look at our fellow passengers and pay attention to their demeanor and their actions.
In the past few weeks, I’ve talked with “fellow travelers” to see what typical Americans are thinking about “flying with Mr. Abdulmutallab.” My sample of 15 to 20 men and women might not satisfy a survey expert, but the consistency of responses was such that I’m pretty comfortable that I know the lay of the land. I’ll bet you do as well. But let’s stroll through my findings and see where we come out.
First, I asked: Is the security system working? The answer is clear: no. The folks I queried all said it’s a problem that existed in the George W. Bush administration and has worsened under his successor.
Second, I asked whether passengers have some personal responsibility for their own safety. The unanimous response: yes. Today, we all know it may fall to us to save ourselves and to keep Mr. Abdulmutallab from succeeding in his mission.
With this understood, what do people look for on airline flights or in other risky environments? If they’re looking for certain types of people and behavior, what types?
Here the answers were not unanimous, but they were broadly consistent. Most focus first and foremost on men of military service age who appear to be Middle Eastern or Arabic, wearing Muslim attire or are bearded. Others say they don’t “profile” on appearance but rather on behavior: “We have to stop Tim McVeigh as well as Richard Reid.” All are alert for conduct that “doesn’t look right” (“DLR,” as one put it).
That mix is reassuring, especially because Mr. Abdulmutallab volunteered that there are English speakers and females being trained in Yemen. We didn’t exactly press Mr. Abdulmutallab for information when first given the chance, but it’s nice that he coughed up this tidbit.
Then I asked, what would you do upon seeing or hearing things that are suspect in the gate area or after boarding a flight?
This is the toughest question, I think, and the answers were responsible and thoughtful. Suspicious or provocative behavior in the terminal or after boarding should be reported to airline personnel, TSA and law enforcement authorities. If this is not feasible or if the reaction is inadequate, one woman said she would talk with responsible-looking male passengers about what to do. If strong suspicions are ignored, most said, don’t board the plane and, if on board already, demand that if Mr. Abdulmutallab and friends are allowed to fly, you must be allowed to get off.
And in flight? Again, I found folks are very serious but also very measured about how to respond. There was unanimity that directions from the flight crew should be followed except in extremis. Flight attendants – and passengers who assist them – should be granted broad immunity from liability for subduing and placing in restraints passengers who are disruptive, willfully disobedient or engaging in threatening behavior.
Although passengers see physical action as a last resort, they’re willing to act because they know a failure to do so could have deadly consequences. One friend joked that pilots should be able to cause handguns to drop from overhead in lieu of air masks. Most figure that weapons can be improvised, mentioning pens, belts and belt buckles, wine bottles and other items. The will to act is reinforced by the belief that, if it’s necessary, it will be a team effort. Most think the virtual certainty that fellow passengers will join in quickly turns the odds in favor of the good guys.
Common sense pervaded the responses to my questions. You might not figure this out from listening to Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan or Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, but traveling Americans grasp the lesson of Hillaire Belloc’s famous couplet “The Pacifist”:
Pale Ebenezer thought it wrong to fight,
But Roaring Bill (who killed him) thought it right.
It is not what we think; it’s what Mr. Abdulmutallab thinks. And he’s been real clear about where he’s coming from.
Ray Hartwell, a Navy veteran and a Washington lawyer.