Gun Nuts at 30,000 Feet?

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After
the pervasive failure of airport security on 9/11, the Air Line
Pilots Association sought federal permission for pilots to carry
handguns to defeat hijackers. Capt. Steve Luckey, chairman of the
association’s flight-security committee, explained, “The
only reason we want lethal force in the cockpit is to provide an
opportunity to get the aircraft on the ground. We don’t have
911. We can’t pull over.”

The Bush administration rejected the request, preferring instead
to rely on jet fighters to shoot down hijacked civilian planes.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta declared on March
4, 2002, “I don’t feel we should have lethal weapons in
the cockpit” – as if airplanes themselves were not among
the most deadly lethal weapons.

Congress eventually trumped the administration, passing a law in
September 2002 to create a program to train pilots to use firearms
to defend their planes. (The Transportation Security Administration
– TSA – effectively buried the program with red tape,
ensuring that only 48 pilots would be permitted to carry guns in
early 2003.)

Former TSA chief John Magaw was the administration’s point
person in the fight against permitting pilots to be armed. Magaw
announced, “The use of firearms aboard a U.S. aircraft must
be limited to those thoroughly trained members of law enforcement.”
The federal air-marshal program was touted as a silver bullet against
hijacking threats. A White House statement on aviation safety in
the wake of 9/11 declared, “The requirements and qualifications
of Federal Air Marshals are among the most stringent of any U.S.
federal law enforcement agency.”

The TSA was determined to quickly expand the number of marshals
from a few hundred to more than six thousand. However, most of the
applicants failed the marksmanship test. The TSA solved that problem
by dropping the marksmanship test for new applicants – even
though the ability to shoot accurately in a plane cabin is widely
considered a crucial part of a marshal’s job.

Some would-be marshals were hired even after they repeatedly shot
flight attendants in mock hijack-response training exercises. One
marshal groused that the training for new marshals was “like
security-guard training for the mall.” USA Today’s
Blake Morrison noted a report that “one marshal was suspended
after he left his gun in a lavatory aboard a United Airlines flight
from Washington to Las Vegas in December. A passenger discovered
the weapon.” An air marshal left his pistol on a Northwest
flight from Detroit to Indianapolis; a cleaning crew discovered
the weapon. Morrison noted,

At least 250 federal air marshals have left the top-secret program,
and documents obtained by USA Today suggest officials are
struggling to handle what two managers call a flood of resignations.

TSA director James Loy (who was hired after Magaw was fired) insisted
that the “traveling public should rest assured that the Federal
Air Marshal Service is providing the largest, highest-caliber, best-trained
and most professional protective force in American aviation history.”
The Transportation Department responded to the USA Today
expos by sending Secretary Mineta to an air marshal training facility,
where he witnessed a training exercise in which marshals shot a
would-be hijacker. Mineta commented,

I not only saw a remarkable demonstration of skill, professionalism
and marksmanship, but a degree of professionalism we are instilling
throughout our aviation security system.

The Rajcoomar
episode

Eight days
later, on August 31, 2002, Delta Flight 442 with 183 people on
board was proceeding from Atlanta to Philadelphia on a Saturday
afternoon when a passenger got up and began rummaging in the overhead
bin. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the trouble
began when a man described as “fortyish and disheveled made
inappropriate comments to a female passenger a few rows behind
him.” Two plainclothes air marshals jumped up and tackled
the guy, shoving him first to the back of the plane and then dragging
him to the first-class area.

Then the trip got interesting. One of the marshals returned to the
front of the coach section, drew his Glock semiautomatic pistol,
and started screaming and pointing his gun at passengers. Philadelphia
judge James Lineberger, a passenger on the flight, commented,

I assumed at that moment that there was going to be some sort
of gun battle…. There were individuals looking to see what they
were pointing at and [the air marshals] were yelling, “Get
down, get out – get your head out of the aisle.”

In a formal complaint to the TSA, Lineberger declared that

there was no apparent reason for holding all the passengers of
the plane at gunpoint, and no explanation was given…. It appeared
a gun battle was imminent, causing great distress.

Lineberger was sitting diagonally across from the initial target
of the marshals; he did not notice any problem on the flight until
the marshals went ballistic. Susan Johnson, a social worker from
Mobile, Alabama, was also unaware of any disturbance until the air
marshals seized the man. She said,

It never made sense. This guy was not any physical threat that
we could see. Maybe he said some things to them that made them
concerned. He just appeared to us unstable, emotionally.

Becky Johnson, a reporter who wrote a column about the episode for
her Waynesville, North Carolina, newspaper, observed, “They
never, ever said who they were, that they were air marshals or whoever.”

After the flight landed, the marshals nailed another terrorist suspect
– Robert “Bob” Rajcoomar. He was handcuffed and taken
into custody because, as TSA spokesman David Steigman later explained,
Rajcoomar, “to the best of our knowledge, had been observing
too closely.” Rajcoomar had been sitting in first class quietly
reading and drinking a beer until the marshals dumped the allegedly
unruly passenger from coach class into the adjacent seat. Rajcoomar
recalled, “One [marshal] sat on the guy … he was groaning,
and the more he groaned, the more they twisted the handcuffs.”
Rajcoomar asked the stewardess for permission to move to another
seat in first class; she told him to take one of the seats the marshals
had vacated.

When the plane landed, Rajcoomar recalled, “One of these marshals
came down to me and said, ‘Head down, hands over your head!’
They pushed my head down, told me to bend down.” Rajcoomar
said one of the marshals told him, “We didn’t like the
way you looked” and “We didn’t like the way you looked
at us.” Some air marshals apparently think of themselves as
minor-league deities whom no mortal should be permitted to directly
observe. Rajcoomar was locked up in a filthy cell for three hours
before being released without charges. His wife was left to roam
the Philadelphia airport, not knowing what had happened to her husband.

Rajcoomar was born in India and became a U.S. citizen in 1985. He
was a retired U.S. Army major and a practicing physician in Florida.
He filed notice that he would sue the TSA for violating his civil
rights through “blatant racial profiling.” Rajcoomar complained
that the marshals “were behaving like terrorists themselves.”
After the plane landed, the first person the marshals had handcuffed
was questioned but a U.S. attorney decided not to file charges.

Defending
the air marshals

TSA spokesman
David Steigman told The Palm Beach Post, “If the air
marshals say, ‘Sit down, keep eyes straight forward,’
well, don’t even think about moving around.” (The TSA
has not yet formally proposed that Congress legislate a death
penalty for getting out of one’s seat in violation of a TSA
command.)

TSA spokeswoman Heather Rosenker justified the response to the Associated
Press because marshals are trained to “do what they believe
is the right thing to do to get control of the airplane.” Steigman
told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “There was a passenger
who was being obstreperous, who was subdued by sky marshals and
has since been released.” “Obstreperous” could simply
mean the guy made some noise. Does this mean that air marshals feel
entitled to threaten people with imminent death any time someone
raises his voice during a flight?

The air marshal who brandished his weapon had twice applied to be
a cop in Philadelphia but failed the police department’s psychological
tests; the marshal was also rejected in his attempt to get a job
as a prison guard. The marshal had received only two weeks of training
at the time he threatened scores of coach passengers. Steigman,
responding to the Philadelphia Inquirer scoop about the air
marshal’s psych test strikeouts, declared,

Federal air marshals are highly trained law enforcement professionals,
each of whom can be called upon to make, at any moment, a split-second
decision while traveling hundreds of miles per hour 30,000 feet
above the ground with no backup.

This comment implied that the marshals were miraculously piloting
the plane and maintaining altitude at the same time they waved their
guns in the air.

What escalates this episode beyond a mere bizarre anecdote is the
fact that the TSA hailed its marshals as models. Several days after
the incident, Thomas Quinn, the national director of the air marshal
program, asserted, “The federal air marshals did a very good
job. They did exactly as they’re trained to do.” This
makes stark that all the onus will be placed on airline passengers
when TSA employees lose control of themselves and threaten to kill
people. Problems are caused only by people who disobey the commands
of federal agents.

Even though the air marshals are unreliable, the Bush administration
has slowed down the congressionally mandated program to authorize
pilots to carry guns. Though it went through the motions of setting
up a program, it did so in a way to discourage pilots from participating.
One pilot, Tracy Price, complained, “The TSA has very intentionally
and successfully minimized the number of volunteers through thinly
veiled threats and by making the program difficult and threatening
to get into.”

Nine months after Congress passed the law, TSA had certified only
44 pilots to pack heat while flying. The Washington Post
reported in October 2003 that

advocates for pilots who carry guns said the pilots are barred
from criticizing the program to the media. The TSA has offered
the news media opportunities to interview pilots who are supportive
of the program.

Brian Darling of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations condemned
the TSA’s slant: “They should not be trotting out federal
flight-deck officers to say good things about the program while
muzzling pilots who are critical of the program.” After grumbling
about TSA’s policies on armed pilots spilled into the media,
a TSA official sent an e-mail warning to all pilots authorized to
carry guns prohibiting them even from communicating to their congressmen
about their concerns about the program.

In
2002 Bush bragged that the law creating the TSA “greatly enhanced
the protections for America’s passengers and goods.” Rather
than making Americans safe from terrorists, the TSA has made them
prey to federal agents. There is no reason to expect the agency
to turn over a new leaf. And there is no reason to expect a small
army of undercover federal agents flying on planes to make Americans
safe.

March
9, 2005

James
Bovard [send him mail] is the
author of The
Bush Betrayal
and Terrorism
& Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice, and Peace to Rid the
World of Evil
serves as a policy advisor for The
Future of Freedom Foundation.

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