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Airplanes and Property Protection

September 27, 2001

Tags The Police StateU.S. EconomyBig GovernmentLegal SystemInterventionism

The Bush administration has announced its support for "sky marshals" on commercial aircraft, with the hope that an armed federal agent will deter future hijackings. On the downside, however, the administration opposes the easiest route of simply permitting the airlines to arm themselves and thereby take responsibility for their own security. Once again, we are back to trusting the government to protect us, even at a time when property owners are begging for the right to provide their own protection. 

The post-attack politicking, and the attempt to use the crisis to impose the national security state at home and expand the military empire abroad, has obscured a simple point: it all started with a multiple hijacking. This was made possible not with grenades or heavy explosives but with box cutters-the most dangerous weapon on board the hijacked planes. If the hijackers had been stopped or even deterred, the twin towers would still be standing, and there would be no war. 

Before the attack, it was not generally known to the public that the crew members of commercial jets were completely unarmed and thus vulnerable to malicious persons on board. These planes are loaded with people who are complete strangers to the owners and managers of the airline. It should have been obvious that if the wrong person should gain control of the plane, the airplane could be used as a weapon of war. If guns aren't necessary on commercial airlines, they aren't necessary anywhere. 

Technological advances have made available frangible bullets that injure and even kill but do not harm the plane itself. Even a stun gun, which has also been forbidden, would have done these terrorists in before they had the chance to take total control of the aircraft and turn it into an instrument of mass death. Security is clearly a good that passengers want to purchase, and surely air carriers want to protect their property and customers. 

Why were pilots unarmed, and still as of this writing? Because federal regulations 14 Code of Federal Regulations section 108.11 only allow armed planes with the approval of the FAA. The FAA doesn't approve, and, in fact, hasn't approved any guns on plans since Nixon's "sky marshal" program was ended in 1973. As Jane Garvey, the FAA administrator, told The New York Times (September 25, 2001), guns on plans is an idea that "two weeks ago I would not even have considered." 

What an admission! So much for entrusting the federal government with our security. We can't change the past, but surely, the regulation will be repealed now. As David Kopel of the Independence Institute notes, this "is the only reform-unlike the panoply of freedom-restricting measures currently being promoted by the Department of Transportation-that actually would have foiled the September 11 acts of war."

As Brad Rohdenburg, American Airlines captain from Meredith, N.H., wrote in The Wall Street Journal (September 21, 2001):

How utterly absurd that thousands can be murdered with boxcutters. The airport security procedures mandated since Sept. 11 wouldn't have prevented it, and won't deter it from happening again. They don't do much but inconvenience passengers and increase costs. And now every copy-cat crazy in the world knows how much damage can be done with an airplane. Pilots aren't allowed to carry so much as a Swiss Army knife any longer, but an Internet search for ceramic and composite knives will show what terrorists can still easily smuggle aboard an aircraft. What are we supposed to do then, hit them with our purses? 

I'm told by my airline's flight office that the FAA feels pilots shouldn't have weapons because "they might be taken away and used." Well, what if our airplanes are taken away and used? If we make ourselves helpless, we've already done half of a terrorist's work for him. At the funeral of John Oganowski (the captain of American Airlines flight 11), I spoke with other pilots who have sharpened their belt buckles, screwdrivers, pens, etc., so that they might have a prayer of defending their $30 million jets from guys with boxcutters. 

An emphasis on prevention is of course necessary, but we can never be sure that every airport ramp worker, baggage handler, caterer, mechanic and refueler is trustworthy. We need a last line of defense to keep hijackers out of the cockpit. Federal agents from even the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Department of Agriculture, Department of Education and the Smithsonian Institution are allowed to carry guns on commercial airlines. Why not the pilots who are responsible for the aircraft? Many of us already have better firearms training than that provided to those agencies-and we're willing to get more at our own expense. . . .

Make some of us sky marshals. How much more cost-effective could a security program be? At the very least, let us carry pocket knives again. As Benjamin Franklin said, "If you make yourselves sheep, the wolves will eat you." 

Who could disagree? It turns out that the FAA does. In the wake of the attack, the FAA is not liberalizing permissions but rather is eliminating the formal (if unused) permission altogether. Effective November 14, according to Kopel, there will be no circumstances under which the air carrier itself can arm its own property against attack. Pilots may not even carry three-inch pocket knives. Instead, only employees of the federal government are allowed to function as sky marshals on select flights. (It cannot put them on all.)

In taking this position, the FAA and the Bush administration are even rejecting the pleas of the Air Line Pilots Association (67,000 members), which overwhelmingly favors allowing pilots to be armed. Imagine if there were a federal bureau in charge of the securing convenience stores, and part of its "security plan" involved disarming all cashiers, and doing so against the pleas of the potential victims behind the registers and their customers. After an inevitable disaster, would it be any great comfort that the same bureau later promised that the government itself would now start using deadly force, in selected stores? 

At issue here is the right to protect private property from invasion. After all, hijacking is just the name we give to a crime that involves seizing control of private property (the airplane) when it is flying in the air and likely to be carrying hundreds of paying customers. The key to having prevented this crime of theft-which in this case led to mass murder-is better protection of property against invasion. In short, this case makes the libertarian point that peace is best preserved through strict application of the rules concerning private property. 

Protecting planes from being seized from their owners is akin to the desire of the gas stations, jewelry stores, and industrial plants not to be robbed. In a free market, they do this through providing their own protection or hiring protection services. These services include alarms, fences, and, as a last resort, deadly force, which usually means a sidearm. The mere prospect of deadly force works as a deterrent to crime and a means to limit the damage of crimes. 

Anyone who has visited Tiffany's in Manhattan knows that security is top priority. The armed men standing around, all hired by the company itself, don't make you feel intimidated unless you are up to no good. Otherwise, they make you feel safe, because everyone knows that thieves are attracted to jewelry stores. If a jewelry store were robbed during business hours, and you found that the owners and managers had taken no precautions against such a thing, you would be amazed. If the owner said he "would not have even considered" arming the store, you might regard him as wildly irresponsible. 

But a quick look at the existing literature on the subject turns up a taboo against armed commercial flights. Rodney Wallis, former director of security at the National Air Transport Association, wrote a book in 1993 called Combating Air Terrorism (Washington: Brassey's), in which he dismissed the idea in a few sentences: "Airline security must be seen to be preserving the safety of passengers. Introducing guns into the cabin of an aircraft, regardless of whose possession they are in, is unlikely to achieve this goal" (p. 83).

Regardless of whose possession they are in? This sentence preposterously assumes the moral equivalence of pilots and terrorists, as if human volition has nothing to do with whether people are protected or injured by guns. Under Wallis's logic, we would have to ban guns from the White House, without regard to whether the guns were possessed by the Secret Service or by would-be assassins. 

No better is Peter St. John's Air Piracy, Airport Security, and International Terrorism: Winning the War Against Hijackers (New York: Quarum Books, 1976, 1989), which dismisses the idea of any guns on board in one loaded sentence: "an ill-trained, armed sky marshal attempting to disrupt a terrorist operation could lead to a worst [sic.] disaster" (p. 73). Thomas Ashwood's Terror in the Skies (New York: Stein and Day, 1987) calls the idea of armed marshals on planes "dangerous," "hazardous," "ill-conceived," "much ballyhooed," "overpublicized," and, finally, "ineffective." Why? Because in the past, armed men on planes have been "sparsely trained, overused, underqualified, and improperly armed" (p. 69).

But all these arguments would seem to point to the need for more training, not for disarming planes and putting the terrorists in charge. The failure to distinguish between armed hijackers and armed pilots appears to be the central problem that afflicted all "experts" before September 11. In other words, the situation is not unlike the case of gun control in general: hoping to eliminate violence, the gun banners have only sent a signal to the most violent people that they are free to take charge. 

Think of all three places where the federal regulations have imposed a universal ban on guns: post offices, public schools, and airlines. It is because of this ban that we know what "going postal" means, that we know happened at Columbine, and that we will never forget the horror of September 11. The answer here is no different from the usual libertarian prescription for ensuring peace: Let property owners protect themselves and those they serve. 

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Jeffrey Tucker is vice president of the Mises Institute and editor of The Free Market. Tucker@mises.org. See his Daily Article Archive. He would like to thank David Kopel for providing helpful comments on this piece.


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