President George W. Bush must be preoccupied with overseas strategy, because he has allowed his administration to take a politically disastrous position against the arming of airline pilots. Polls show strong support from both pilots and the public for allowing guns in the cockpit.
Last Wednesday the House of Representatives bowed to public opinion and their own instincts by passing, 310 to 113, an ambitious plan to arm any pilot who volunteers for training. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) explained that many members of Congress fly every week and see for themselves the gaps in airline security.
Political analysts had expected serious opposition in the Senate, but resistance there has begun to crumble after notoriously anti-gun Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) surprised everyone by announcing her support for arming pilots.
Congressional Democrats are fortunate to have found an issue they can use against a popular president. It also gives them a priceless opportunity to change the public perception that they are dogmatically against all guns, something that gave them serious trouble in the last election.
It is difficult to understand how the President allowed his administration to take a hard stand against arming pilots considering the following facts that have emerged during the last ten months of public debate:
Prior to 1987, pilots were exempt from security screening and many carried firearms in the cockpit. No problems were ever reported and at least one hijacking was averted when a pilot shot a hijacker.
Aviation experts have debunked the myth that a modern airliner can be brought down by stray pistol bullets. Redundant control circuits, over-engineered structures and powerful air supply systems make the big jets highly resistant to this kind of damage.
There will never be enough Federal Air Marshals to monitor more than a tiny percentage of airline flights. The expensive program also draws experienced officers from other critical agencies that are experiencing staff shortages.
News reports of missed weapons have made the public painfully aware that the current system of security screening is ineffective, even as travelers are forced to endure poorly conceived random searches by amateurish, abusive security guards. Thousands of Americans have simply decided to stop flying until the situation improves.
Perhaps the strongest argument for arming pilots was inadvertently made by the President himself. Shortly after September 11th, he announced that hijacked airliners would be shot down by the Air Force. What possible gun accident could be worse? The consequences of a hijacking are so horrific that the downside risk of arming pilots is insignificant by comparison.
The counter-arguments by members of the Bush Administration are so weak as to be laughable. The best point they can offer is that pilots must concentrate on flying the aircraft. Using this logic, even a simple fire extinguisher should be denied to these poor overworked pilots, since fighting a cockpit fire might distract them from their duties. Pilots are incensed at this condescending attitude. It ignores the fact that modern aircraft are highly automated and makes it seem as if pilots have all they can do to keep their machines in the air.
One puzzling aspect of this strange situation is the fact that the President flew F-102 fighters for the Texas National Guard from 19691973. He should know better.
The F-102 was a product of the Cold War, designed to intercept enemy bombers over the continental United States. The radar system was linked to the autopilot, which would fly the fighter into the best attack position. The automated fire control system would then release the air-to-air guided missiles or unguided rockets at the optimum moment. With this kind of aviation experience, one has to believe that the President is not paying any attention to the way his administration is handling this issue.
The White House is now referring all questions to the two men responsible for blocking the armed pilots initiative, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, and his underling John Magaw, chief of the new Transportation Security Administration. Magaw is the former head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. While under his leadership, ATF was one of the most mismanaged and self-serving bureaus in U.S. history.
Magaw and Mineta are more interested in building fiefdoms than in protecting citizens. They instinctively recoil at the thought of allowing any Americans not employed by the government to provide armed security. To do so, they fear, would effectively admit their own impotence and irrelevance in the war on terrorism.
As long as President Bush is on the wrong side of this issue, it will appear that he is not serious about airline security. With a growing consensus in favor of arming pilots and a mid-term election coming up in less than four months, the President needs to take charge of this issue soon.
July 17, 2002