Paul Jacob

Suppose terrorists sneak aboard your flight. Perhaps they have failed to smuggle (conventional, metallic) weapons on board. What they do have are their intentions, their training, and their willingness to die.

The flight attendants solicit your attention, and explain what to do in the event of an emergency. They demonstrate the use of the oxygen masks and the flotation devices. There's a short film. Then you hear from one of the pilots.

"Welcome aboard. This is Joe, your flight captain. We're cruising at such-and-such thousand feet, at such-and-such miles per hour. The skies are clear and we expect smooth sailing. And oh, by the way--I'm unarmed. And the co-pilot is unarmed. So sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight."

No sane pilot would announce that the residents of the cockpit are easy pickings. But if such an in-flight admission were indeed made on an American jumbo jet in the America of September 11, 2003, would any stray terrorists among the passengers learn anything they don't already know?

Here's the problem. Two years after the 911 attacks--almost a year after Congress authorized a broad program to arm commercials pilots--the Transportation Security Administration is dragging its feet, making it almost impossible for pilots to defend themselves against lethal force with lethal force of their own. The TSA prefers air marshals to handle the last-line-of-defense type thing. Which is fine, so long as the bad guys pick a plane with an air marshal, and the air marshal succeeds in overpowering the bad guys when the bad guys make their move.

Back when Congress was debating whether pilots should or should not be in a position to shoot at terrorists who breach the cockpit, some persons wondered whether pilots could be trusted with so dangerous an object as a gun. Perhaps instead of steering the plane the pilots would accidentally shoot up the instrument panel or something.

At the time, Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young observed that "armed F-16s are prepared to shoot down any commercial jet that is hijacked by terrorists.... [W]e must allow trained and qualified pilots to serve as the last line of defense against such a potential disaster."

Even Senator Barbara Boxer, normally in favor of victim disarmament, stressed the obvious. She asked us to imagine, should another 911-style attack occur, "how the survivors of all those passengers and crew will feel if we failed to allow pilots to have guns to defend the plane and an American flight was brought down by the American military."

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.