TCS Daily

Getting the Drop on Airplane Terrorists

By Henry I. Miller - August 23, 2004 12:00 AM

In the Old West, when law enforcement was spotty or nonexistent, vigilantes sometimes stepped in. A known cattle rustler might be found face-down in a gully with a terminal case of "lead poisoning," as they used to say in TV westerns.

Whatever purpose was served in such circumstances by vigilantism (a term derived from San Francisco's Committee on Vigilance, formed by citizens in 1851 to combat organized crime), it is a practice that most Americans now find abhorrent, as it conjures up visions of mob violence and lynching. However, few would likely question that under the most extreme circumstances, it still has a place -- for example, the action taken by the passengers and crew on United Air Lines Flight 93 on September 11, 2001, who fought the hijackers and caused the plane to crash in Pennsylvania.

The enormous gray area between these two poles was brought to mind by airlines' reporting that would-be terrorists apparently have made dry runs of attacks on airplanes in order to provoke, test and analyze security measures. There was also the July incident on a Northwest Airlines flight from Detroit to Los Angeles, during which a group of fourteen Syrian musicians indulged in several hours of bizarre and terrifying behavior that passengers and members of the flight crew suspected was terrorism-related. The Arab men loitered in small groups during the flight; made innumerable trips to the lavatories, often carrying a large paper bag that passed from hand to hand; and finally, as the plane was making its final approach into Los Angeles, "suddenly, seven of the men stood up in unison" and walked to various parts of the plane, according to a fellow passenger who later wrote about the experience.

For the millions of us who fly regularly, this sort of incident, and the prospect of potential terrorists testing the vulnerability of airplane security, brings up the questions of under what circumstances passengers should intervene, and what they should do.

Tommy Hamilton, SWAT team commander for the police force at Dallas-Forth Worth airport, who has worked with air marshals, cautions against a rush to vigilantism and urges reliance on the professionals. "Federal air marshals have credentials and will identify themselves as soon as practical. It will be easy to see who they are. They will not identify themselves until after someone has identified themselves [sic] as a terrorist-hijacker." (There were reportedly several air marshals on the Northwest Detroit-Los Angeles flight, but they remained incognito because the suspects did not do anything overtly illegal.)

However, if no air marshals are aboard (and currently they are assigned to only a small percentage of domestic flights), flight attendants and passengers are the first line of defense. Passengers should obey the directions of the flight crew, but they should be prepared, mentally and physically, to act. Like a basketball player getting ready for a jump ball, or a sprinter in the starting blocks, every able-bodied passenger needs to be ready to move, and to act definitively, not tentatively.

Experts feel it is unlikely that terrorists would be able to get firearms or explosives on a plane. Having to rely on "softer" weapons puts them at a disadvantage when confronted by scores of passengers, who have plenty of potential, improvised weapons at hand: a hard kick in the knee (more likely to succeed than in the groin, according to experts); an elbow in the face or ribs; any sharp object in the eyes; a soda can torn in half yields a sharp edge; a computer cord or belt used as a garrote; an oxygen canister (in one or more of the overhead bins), metal coffee pot or wine bottle used as a club. (Go for the bridge of the nose or the temple, and swing for the fences.)

Think how different September 11, 2001, might have been if airline passengers knew then what they know now.

Henry I. Miller is a physician and a fellow at the Hoover Institution.


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