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When Skies Aren't So Friendly, Arm the Pilots

Fortified doors aren't enough.

June 13, 2002|CONRAD BURNS | Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) is a member of the Senate Commerce Committee and the aviation subcommittee.

I've never met a door that couldn't be opened or a pilot who's ever seen an air marshal. So I was perplexed and disappointed when the undersecretary of Transportation for security testified before the Senate Commerce Committee that the pilots we entrust daily with multimillion-dollar machines and thousands of lives aren't to be trusted with side arms. He puts his faith in "fortified doors," a seemingly nonexistent army of air marshals and--if all else fails--in-flight maneuvers to throw terrorists off guard. Instead, he should be thinking like the kamikaze terrorists that these pilots could face.

When I was in the Marines I learned that to defeat the enemy, you must think like the enemy. For this reason, I believe the Justice Department is better prepared to handle aviation security than Federal Aviation Administration bureaucrats. Do they really think a door--not a 9-millimeter gun--is a sufficient deterrent to future Mohamed Attas?

If people want to die hijacking planes, it makes sense to this old cowboy that they die before they get the job done.

That's why I am co-authoring a bill to create a voluntary program to arm pilots and establish a training program for flight attendants. Deadly force is the only language of deterrence a terrorist understands. Without it, we're vesting our faith in the chimera of air marshals and spotty airport security. A secure commercial flight relies on preventive layers of security being 100% effective, 100% of the time. We're foolish to expect that equation to work perfectly, forever, just as we're foolish to believe in an impregnable door. A fortified door is not fortified when the door is opened, as it must be when attendants bring pilots their meals. Rather than allow pilots to protect themselves, their aircraft and passengers with guns, should the government mandate that pilots abstain from eating?

Once airborne, flights are virtually defenseless. There are only 1,000 air marshals--who at the very least work in pairs--to service more than 30,000 flights a day in the U.S. To build up a force sufficient to staff every flight we'd need to create something nearly the size of the Marine Corps.

This is no time to be gunshy about terrorism. We give our soldiers guns and send them to Afghanistan. We are prepared to give air marshals guns and put them in the flight cabin. But we're prepared to let pilots, almost two-thirds of whom have served in the military, fend for the plane and passengers with their bare hands. Or arm them with stun guns.

American soldiers aren't asked to fight terrorists with toys and temerity. Let's give trained men and women the right to self-defense. And let's do that by using frangible ammunition, which disintegrates upon impact with a metal surface but is strong enough to take down a terrorist. That's how the terror will end, how the hijackings can end. Not with a whimper but a bang.

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