TCS Daily

The Delta Force Paradigm

By Brian E. Finch - June 12, 2002 12:00 AM

In order to understand how 9/11 could have happened, we have to understand how entirely unexpected the method of attack was.

Even taking into consideration the recent uproar about the tidbits of information about suicide hijackers that were "missed", it was practically unfathomable to the American public and travel industry pre-9/11 that such an attack could happen. To our detriment, Osama bin Laden exploited that exact mindset.

But now that we recognize the possibility of such an attack, its likelihood of occurring is much less, which also means that our heavy focus on airline security might be to our detriment.

Do What They Say, and Wait For The Action Hero

Before 9/11, American assumptions about hijackers, their motives and behavior fit under what could be called the "Delta Force Paradigm," or the DFP. The DFP is based on the 1980s cult classic "The Delta Force" starring Chuck Norris and Lee Marvin. In "The Delta Force," Arab terrorists hijack an American jet and threaten to kill passengers or blow up the entire jet unless their demands are met.

The reaction of the flight crew and the passengers in the movie is to try and stay calm and not provoke the terrorists, lest they start killing people. In furtherance of that goal, the crew allows the hijackers access to the cockpit. The pilots land the jet in various locations across the Middle East, hoping that at the next stop something happens that will secure everyone's release. As hoped for, the U.S. government sends in the Delta Force, led by Messrs. Norris and Lee, and they of course rescue the hostages and take control of the plane while dispatching the terrorists in an immensely gratifying fashion.

The plot of "The Delta Force" embodies the DFP: Americans used to think that if their plane was hijacked, they should stay calm, listen to what the hijackers say and wait until the plane gets on the ground so the military or police can come and rescue everyone. That thought process held true not only for passengers but flight crews as well. It is hard to imagine an airline pilot pre-9/11 refusing to open up the cockpit upon the news that a passenger claimed to have a bomb or was going to kill (or actually killed) passengers unless the door was opened. One can in fact imagine the outrage (not to mention the lawsuits) if pre-9/11 a pilot, armed with an ax or other weapon, did NOT open up the cockpit to help subdue a crazed passenger, much less to prevent more killings. Those reactions were all thanks to our predisposition to believe that if we can just land the plane safely, the real world equivalent of Chuck Norris would save the day.

Exploiting the DFP

Unfortunately for the U.S., bin Laden and his men understood the DFP and how to exploit it. They knew that if they threatened to blow up the plane or started killing passengers, one way or another that cockpit door was going to open and no one on the plane was going to fight them. They knew the average American would think "Ok, listen to them, let's land the plane and the police will handle it." In three out of four instances on 9/11, that is what happened, and the rest is tragic history.

Post 9/11, of course, the situation is far different. If anyone goes near the cockpit door, not only is there no way the pilots will let him or her gain access, but they are also likely to be met by a number of unusually angry passengers who will do their best to stop them. People now realize the DFP no longer applies, and that they have to assume that a hijacker is just as likely to try and commandeer the plane to turn into a weapon as they are to try and kill passengers. As the heroes of United Flight 93 proved, ordinary Americans are ready to make that ultimate sacrifice in order to prevent a larger tragedy. We cannot afford to wait for Chuck Norris to save the day, so matters are now in our hands.

Don't Just Look Up

When we combine the new attitude with the measures taken to ensure airline security (strengthened doors, Air Marshals etc.), the next logical question is this: do we need to be so concerned about airline security? Obviously, everyone wants airline travel to be safe, but should securing airplanes be our top priority? Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups have proven themselves to be opportunists, carefully studying their foes to find exploitable weaknesses. Thus, it may well be that the use of airplanes as suicide weapons was a one shot weapon whose utility was destroyed by its revelation.

Assuming for a moment that the threat of suicide hijackings has been greatly diminished, we must be on the look out then for the next "surprise" weapon. This means then that we have to step back from the current debates and make sure enough focus is being placed on predicting new threats and trying to prevent them. That means we cannot be overly obsessed with the debate about arming pilots with guns or tasers, but instead we must think hard about what terrorists will try and use to as the next spectacular surprise weapon.

The fear of preparing for the wrong fight is supported by the long history of governments preparing to fight the wrong battle -- the last war and not the next one. We also have to assume that terrorists will be bold and will utilize skills far more advanced than we thought they possessed. Ignoring all conspiracy theories for a moment, many historians agree that the success of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was due as much to the pervasive belief in the U.S. military that the Japanese could not possibly pull off an operation as grand in scale as the attack on December 7.

We cannot afford to fall into that trap again. The U.S. government and the public have to realize that our foes will be seeking to exploit our weaknesses wherever they appear, so we must look in directions we had not previously thought of. I am not suggesting that we disband the Transportation Security Administration - we of course have to secure our skies so we can fly in confidence. What I am saying is that we cannot focus our eyes solely on the sky, because the next blow may very well not come from that direction.



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