WASHINGTON, D.C. -- It was a smear of the worst kind: President Bush could have and should have done more to alert the nation to the al Qaeda terror attack on Sept. 11, 2001.
The unfounded allegation had predictable effects: Democrats, desperate to damage a popular president in an election year, issued a flurry of hyperventilated calls for a "Bipartisan, Blue Ribbon Panel" to investigate who knew what and when, and "make recommendations so this doesn't happen again." Then, understandably defensive administration officials took to the airwaves, warning the public about the potential for suicide-terrorist attacks against nuclear power plants, bridges, tunnels, the Statue of Liberty and even high-rise apartments. Unfortunately, none of this will help deter or prevent the next act of terrorism by Osama bin Laden, or anyone else. Here's why.
First, another "Blue Ribbon Counterterrorism Panel" would be a waste of time and money. The Holloway Commission, in the 1980s, and the Hart-Rudman Commission, in the 1990s, both presented remarkably similar findings and recommendations that were never fully implemented. Both counterterrorism task forces were chaired by sitting vice presidents and both concluded that there are only two ways to fight terrorism: a) "harden the target" to make successful attacks more difficult; and b) preempt or disrupt attacks before they can be perpetrated. Nothing has changed since 9-11 to alter these core strategies.
Second, the prospect of the government issuing a never-ending series of "alerts" every time an intelligence or law-enforcement agency receives an unsubstantiated threat or some terrorist breaks wind reminds us of Chicken Little warning that "the sky is falling" or the nursery fable about the little boy who cried "wolf." Such auguries may satisfy a politician's need to say, "I told you so," in the aftermath of an attack, but eventually, the public ceases to pay attention.
What's worse is that this week, while members of Congress were knotting their knickers over new accusations and investigations and Team Bush was trying to warn us about every conceivable terrorist threat, at least one real opportunity to prevent terrorists from repeating the carnage of 9-11 was being squandered. On May 21, John Magaw, the new undersecretary for transportation security, imperiously told the Senate Commerce Committee that, notwithstanding the 3,063 people who died when 19 terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners, "I will not authorize firearms in cockpits."
That this astounding decree is supported by Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta -- a former Democrat congressman -- is not surprising. The shocker is that the Bush administration concurs in making sure that every terrorist in the world knows that if he can get into a cockpit, the pilots will have no weapon other than a fire axe.
The Magaw edict follows months of wrangling over how to make air travel safer. Every pilot's union has urged that their pilots, 70 percent of whom are current or former military officers, be allowed to carry handguns as a last-ditch defense -- as they were allowed to do from 1973 to 1984. The Association of Flight Attendants and Airline Passengers Association both support arming pilots. The organizations representing the families of those who died on 9-11 concur.
But Magaw, who claims "40 years of law enforcement," but no time in a cockpit, says that it is more important "to keep pilots focused on flying their planes," and suggests that better passenger screening, improved cockpit doors, more federal air marshals and perhaps Tazer guns would effectively deter suicide-terrorists.
How "focused on flying" could a pilot be if grabbed from behind and hauled out of his seat by a terrorist intent on seizing his aircraft? Federal air marshals are a great way to "harden a target" as long as one is aboard and terrorists don't disarm him and shoot the rest of the passengers and crew. Flight attendants embraced Magaw's Tazer idea until word got out that a "miss" with the high-tech, high-voltage, "non-lethal" weapon could fry the "fly-by-wire" cockpit components with very lethal consequences for all aboard. And as for relying on passenger screening, the day after Magaw testified, the Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport was evacuated and hundreds of passengers had to be re-screened because a metal detector was left unplugged.
Where does that leave "hardening the target" as a deterrence to terrorism? South Carolina Sen. Fritz Hollings scoffed, "I guess we're going to give the passengers machetes and let 'em fight it out." Then, with the experience of one too long in Congress he added, "Just keep the doors locked in flight (and) cut out all the argument about pistols and stun guns." He doesn't explain how pilots on long flights are to eat, change crews or use the "head." But then, why should senators worry about those little details? When they want to make long flights, they summon the U.S. Air Force.
But wait! Magaw says the Air Force is also part of his "security equation" and wants to provide a toll free number that passengers could use to alert authorities about "suspicious on-flight activity." To what end -- so that the Air Force can shoot the plane down before it flies into a government building? Thanks, but I'd rather take my chances with an armed pilot shooting a terrorist than surviving a sidewinder missile.
Despite Magaw, there may be light at the end of the runway. A bipartisan group of senators and a Republican coalition of congressmen are drafting legislation to allow pilots to carry guns. The House legislation proposed by John Mica, R-Fla., and Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, would deputize armed pilots as federal law officers and relieve the airlines of insurance liability when using a weapon to defend their plane, passengers and crew.
Thankfully, someone in Washington recognizes the deterrent value of a sign on every cockpit door that reads, "PILOT MAY BE ARMED."