It’s no great surprise to receive a scalding earful when readers disagree with a column. It’s part of the job.
But I was a bit surprised at being in such an unpopular minority last week after praising the Transportation Security Administration’s intent to ease its restrictions on small pocketknives and some sporting goods aboard airplanes.
I usually have company in my views, but virtually nobody agreed with me on this one. It felt awfully lonely.
“What are you thinking? Where is your good sense?” asked one irate reader. “Allowing knives of any sort on planes is ridiculous in this day and age,” said another.
Even a wise friend expressed gentle disagreement: “Much as I hate the whole invasive process” of airport security, she said, “I feel kind of funny about passengers being allowed a 6-centimeter knife in the main cabin.”
This is overwhelmingly the popular view. Since TSA chief John Pistole announced the proposed revisions, he has been hammered with criticism from flight attendant unions, pilot groups, members of Congress and everyday frequent fliers.
Congressman Ed Markey, D-Mass., is so incensed that he has vowed to try to rush a “No Knives Allowed” bill into law before the TSA’s planned April 25 rule change date. Representatives for crew member groups say they won’t back down in their opposition.
“Obviously, you and the TSA have forgotten what the hijackers used to commandeer the aircraft” during the 9/11 attacks, a retired flight attendant wrote me. “Welcome to the next installment of crazies carrying [expletive] on the plane and making your trip unsafe.” She was palpably angry at what she considered my dangerous cluelessness.
A well-traveled flier who was aboard a Miami-to-Dallas flight the day of the 9/11 attacks said she’ll never forget what it was like when passengers were told what was happening.
“You have no idea how scared we were or what thoughts were racing in our minds,” she wrote. “We were scared to death.”
Their concerns are understandable. I fly, too, and I cherish my own well-being as much as the next person. But I still maintain the TSA is finally starting to get it right.
This issue is worth revisiting, and not because it’s a matter of earthshaking import whether people can take their little Swiss army keychain knives with little scissors and tweezers when they fly.
It’s important because we need to take an honest assessment of what’s driving our public security agenda: logic — or fear?
This has been very well articulated by a few security experts, aviation writers and even some longtime TSA critics who have studied our response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks for more than a decade.
James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic, has written frequently about the airline security system. The knee-jerk no-knives-on-a-plane response, he writes, ignores the reality that reinforced cockpits and alert passengers make it impossible for a handful of terrorists with small weapons to hijack or crash a plane.
“The main danger the TSA needs to worry about is explosives, whether carried into the cabin or checked in cargo,” he wrote (which is why the agency isn’t budging on its maddening 3-ounce gel-and-liquid edict). “If it tries to guard against every conceivable other threat, it might as well not let anyone fly at all.”
Flight attendants have argued, with reason, that while pilots are now protected behind barricaded doors, they are still the first line of defense against unruly, potentially violent passengers.
But if we want to reduce the most likely cause of violence in the cabin, I would point out that the TSA should ban alcohol — no in-flight drinks for passengers, no pre-flight bars in the terminal and mandatory breath-alcohol testing for everybody at the gate. Surely belligerent drunks cause more trouble aboard planes than all other factors combined.
The bottom line is that if we try to adapt our lives to every what-if scenario we can devise, we might as well go home and hide under the bed right now.
Paradoxically, I think some people are freaking out over knives on planes for the same reason others think all teachers ought to carry guns to school: Their thinking is driven by emotion, by their fear of horrifying but statistically rare events.
It’s understandable, but it’s a bad rationale for public policy. Government’s mandate is to take reasonable measures to ensure public safety — not to promise that nothing bad will ever happen to any of us.
Commercial pilot Patrick Smith, writing in his popular “Ask the Pilot” column published in the Boston Globe, writes of the 9/11 terrorists: “Their plan relied almost entirely on the element of surprise, not weapons.”
Like Fallows, he argues that the surprise was a one-time event and hijackers will never be able to take over an airplane with small knives again.
“We have to remove this discussion from the framework and the emotional weight of September 11,” he writes.
It’s not really about the knives. It’s about that “emotional weight.”
It remains to be seen whether that’s a step we’re ready to take.
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