WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The headline in the newspaper the other day had an agreeable whiff of the absurd to it: "Tampa Crash Pilot Had Acne Drug Prescription." The story was about Charles J. Bishop, the 15-year-old boy who, unauthorized and unsupervised, climbed into a Cessna airplane at a Florida flight school and flew it suicidally into the side of a Tampa skyscraper. He was not part of any terrorism organization. He had acne.
No, it was not the trauma of having little red welts on his face that made him do it. The speculation in the newspapers is that a particular acne treatment made him do it, Accutane. Can you see the legal trend that may be set here: "Mass Murderer Cites Dependence on Accutane for Homicidal Rampage," "Teens to Be Tested for Accutane Before Prom Night."
Supposedly the Food and Drug Administration has found that 147 patients since 1982 have either attempted suicide or accomplished suicide while using Accutane. "We are aware that he (Bishop) had a prescription," said a Tampa police official, but she went on to say that she did not know the extent of his use of the medication. So, on droned the stories about Accutane. There is desperation here. The news industry does not know how to approach this ominous event -- a lone and apparently unhappy teen-ager slipping into one of the thousands of little airplanes that sit on one of the hundreds of low security airfields in the country and turning it into a cruise missile.
It seems to me there is a more pressing issue here than acne treatment or surging hormones. The more pressing issue is how to prevent all manner of vehicles used by millions of people every day from being turned into instruments of enormous destruction. We live in a society where vehicles flow freely on the roadway and in the air. Now we know a vast number of those vehicles can be transformed into bombs. The assassins' Sept. 11 flights showed the danger of large aircraft. A 15-year-old boy demonstrated the danger of just a little Cessna. The Oklahoma bombing showed us the danger of a truck filled with a mixture of readily purchased bomb-making materials.
This is a challenge for the New Technology, and for scientists and engineers in dozens of fields of inquiry. I can envisage a technology adaptable to large planes that would force them to stay on pre-approved courses. I can imagine security systems that keep dangerous people and dangerous gadgetry off airplanes, ships and trains. But how can we stop individuals from driving cars into buildings or small planes from flying off course into crowds of people? And what is to be done about trucks filled with what amounts to dynamite?
There are 5,000 large planes in the sky on an average weekday flying on instruments. There are many thousands more small planes using visual flight plans and thus unidentified by any system of flight supervision. Even if they were supervised, they fly in patterns that would allow a suicidal pilot to veer off course and crash into a densely populated city before any countermeasure might be effected. What is a modern society to do to prevent that?
Some have suggested closer supervision of the pilots and passengers on small planes. The air corridors used by such planes could be restricted and away from population centers. Yet, given the limited number of fighters the government might scramble and the fighters' limitations, that last restriction will not work for years to come -- and then only when technology has been developed for monitoring these flights and destroying errant planes.
Still, what are we to do about the "dirty nuclear bombs" or chemical bombs that could be set off in cities, killing thousands and rendering the cities uninhabitable for a century? As a society, we are now presented with enormous security challenges. History tells us that such challenges can be met, but they will quite likely fundamentally change the way we live. To begin with, an America secure from either the massive destruction of Sept. 11 or the lesser destruction of the teen-age pilot might well take on the appearance of Israel or any other country under siege.
As the year 2002 begins, Washington is sounding like it always does in an election year -- with Democrats turning their critical rhetoric upon a Republican president's economics. Some call this politics as usual. After that Accutane-maddened schoolboy flew his Cessna into a building in Tampa, the pols ought to think twice about politics as usual. Americans are facing a security danger the like of which it has never faced before.