TCS Daily


"A View That Must Delight the Terrorist"

By Val MacQueen - January 9, 2004 12:00 AM

Despite the jaw-dropping magnitude of what the Americans have achieved in Iraq, including winning an entire war in a few weeks and ferreting one tiny fugitive out of the vast desert wastes, there is still a substantial segment in Britain and Europe staying alert for Vietnam-style quagmires and Yankee ineptitude. Americans are so simple minded. They don't understand the big picture like we do -- although it's hard to conceive of a bigger landscape than the geopolitics of the entire Middle East that George Bush is determined to modify.

Our teeth ache with boredom at the dirges from Guardian readers, listeners to the BBC and barstool foreign policy advisors, accompanied by the keening of a bagpipe, aka the Archbishop of Canterbury, but it was disturbing to note last week that an organization that, above all others, one would have hoped was calm and rational, had joined the yapping and ankle-snapping pack.

When the Americans called for the presence of sky marshals on sensitive flights to the US, BALPO, the British Airline Pilots' union was beside itself with scorn. It barely knew where to begin, so mighty was its disdain. Americans are such cowboys, you know -- always seeking radical and imaginative solutions that actually work. The union even went so far as to advise pilots that they would be within their rights to refuse to take off if an air marshal was on board. A senior manager of BA, which operates around 50 flights a day to the US, said: "The plan came right out of the blue and we want to know why the Government did not tell us about it sooner." (How about, it was in response to an emergency? As in, one British Airways flight was detained at Dulles for three hours before passengers were allowed to disembark, and another, BA 223, was canceled three days in a row because Al-Qaeda seemed to be "chattering" about it?)

An official of Virgin Airlines, the second biggest UK carrier to the US, described America's demands as "laughable" according to London's Daily Telegraph. Wounded pride? Ignorance about practices in their own industry -- as in, the US has had sky marshals on board some domestic flights for almost 30 years -- since the heyday of the skyjacker. They seem equally unaware that El-Al has routinely had sky marshals on board its flights for years.

Naively, British pilots appear to think they have astutely detected a flaw in the whole sky martial concept: Having an armed person in the cabin could be dangerous. Well, well, fancy that. (So could having an armed terrorist in the cabin, of course.)

Meanwhile, Air France pilots were aggrieved to learn that since a few days before the Americans issued their emergency directive, their own government had been putting civilian clad elite gendarmes (gendarmes are an arm of the military; not the police) on some French flights without even telling them.

Pacific, not to say soporific Sweden, it comes as no surprise to learn, has refused requests to put armed police on its commercial flights to and from the United States, saying it has an alternative agreement with U.S. transportation authorities, although it's hard to imagine what that might be. Perhaps an agreement to urge a plate of Swedish food on the terrorists? Could work.

For the record, plucky little Denmark and plucky little Portugal have signed on to the "Americans-are-such-cowboys" gang. The word's still out on plucky little Belgium

Most outrageous, though, is the surly attitude of the pilots of America's chief ally, who place resentment of trespass on their turf above security considerations, although they cloak their anger in "concerns for passenger safety." According to The Telegraph, "Airline managers, supported by their pilots, believe that routine use of marshals would become a security liability. Potential terrorists would know that guns were in the cabin and seek to obtain them by overpowering marshals rather than the more complex task of smuggling their own weapons on board." How a terrorist is going to identify a sky marshal who is in mufti, and who is presumably not just a good shot but trained in the martial arts, and then overpower him is not addressed.

This clinging to the notion, despite the historic abundance of evidence to the contrary, that Americans keep stumbling across new technology and effective procedures by mistake rather than sheer brain power and determination, is baffling.

BALPO general secretary Jim McAuslan said: "We remain opposed to the whole concept of bringing sky marshal guns on board an aircraft as this will not make flights more safe." Despite 30 years of experience to the contrary?

London's Observer obtained a leaked copy of a memo written by BA's Operations Director Mike Street, which says that BA will not operate a single flight unless it is satisfied that it is totally safe to do so. The memo goes on to say: "'If there is security information about a particular flight that gives us cause for concern, then we will not operate that flight. That remains our policy regardless of the Government's capability to deploy armed police officers." My goodness, how those British airline pilots do chatter!

Now they're back at the negotiating table and reports seem to confirm that the pilots' chief concern is not passenger safety but loss of prestige. Foremost among demands is that the pilot be in charge at all times, and that the sky marshal onboard make himself known to the pilot and the flight crew. This will come in handy for any members of the cabin crew who are in cahoots with a terrorist.

The daftest demand, raw with wounded pride, is that the sky marshal be in touch with the captain throughout the flight. Thus a sky marshal clad as a civilian passenger, scurrying back and forth to the cockpit during the flight, or talking furtively into a walkie-talkie would not be too conspicuous.

A 747 captain, David Lonsdale (presumably not with BA) commented: "[BALPO] adopts the standard liberal-Left stance that disarming law-abiding citizens makes us all safer. It is a view that must delight the terrorist." Quite. He also notes that "The Americans have authorised a level of defense that the British Government has so far rejected." Yet, BALPO, BA, Virgin Airlines and Thomas Cook Airlines (which flies to Florida) have apparently failed to make the connection that unarmed British flights are now being targeted by terrorists precisely because the Americans have made their own inflight security so efficient.

As always, the laconic Aussies, who, like Americans, continue to seek robust, practical solutions, have, according to Singapore's The Straits Times, not only been quietly placing armed marshals on some Aussie flights for some time, but have even developed special bullets to be used aboard aircraft. Says The Straits Times report: "The bullets break up on impact with solid objects and will not pierce the plane's skin if fired at the fuselage. And bullet fragments will not put people near the point of impact at risk by ricocheting around the cabin."

As always, the Poles came through on the side of practicality, common sense and loyalty. Their airline LOT is cooperating with US authorities.

In any event, where Britain would find suitable sky marshal applicants with practical weapons experience is a moot point as the British government outlawed the private ownership of any handgun six years ago. Even crack shots participating in Olympics events have to find time and money to travel to France just to practice. I would say that the Brits shot themselves in the foot over this one, although, with handguns strictly banned, it would have to have been with a bow and arrow.


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