National Security vs. Personal Freedom

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May 2003

Since September 11, 2001, I've noticed several disturbing attitudes in our nation in regard to aviation. Now, a lot of my frustration probably stems from the fact that I'm a private pilot, and so in some ways affected more than others, but it still bothers me to see laws passed under the pretext of increasing national security which really do no good at all, sometimes take away a bit of our freedom, and in almost all cases are a hassle.

To start with, let's take a look at flying out of a major airport. I agree, security should be tighter than it was before. But many of the steps I've seen taken just don't work, or are absurd. Because some planes were hi-jacked with box cutters, people are now paranoid of any type of knife being taken aboard an airplane. Even plastic butter knives which really couldn't cut you- but now we can't have decent in-flight meals because of it. How effectual is this law? Well, at the time of this writing, I've flown probably about eight times since those terrorist attacks. And about half of the time I've taken a knife on board with me. Obviously, I wasn't trying to hijack the airplane. It's just a small knife that I carry around on my keyring, and I've forgotten to take it off before the trip. It's not very big- only about a 2" blade, but security is supposed to be making sure that knives that size don't get on board. So I, an ordinary, non-hostile citizen, have "smuggled" a knife onto an airplane at least four times since the supposed increase in security- one time during the highest threat level. And I did it accidentally because I forgot to take it off of my key ring. What do you think a terrorist is going to be able to do who is actually trying to smuggle something on board. There are many, hard, sharp objects that aren't made of metal, that a person could smuggle aboard if they wanted to. But what threat is a knife, now, anyway? I highly doubt, that unless the majority of passengers are terrorists, that they could hijack an airplane with just a knife. Passengers will no longer sit idly while a plane is hijacked. And if they do make up the majority of passengers, simple manpower is on their side. So why are we taking away honest people's possessions at security check points just because they forgot they had a pair of scissors in their overnight bag, or a pocket knife in their pants pocket?

Another one that gets me at airports is that you're no longer allowed in to the gate area unless you're a passenger. I imagine the reason for this is probably to keep the number of people in the area lower, so that security has less people to watch. But it serves no purpose in keeping out people with a hostile intent. A computer printout is sufficient to get in. Even boarding passes can be printed out at your home computer, now. Anyone with an ounce of experience in programming web pages could alter the boarding passes to say whatever they wanted. So, although this serves its purpose in keeping the number of people in the gate area lower, it is completely ineffectual in keeping out hostile parties. And it keeps me from waiting for my departure with my parents when I'm leaving Baltimore to fly back to Texas.

And now for the thing that really gets me pissed off. General aviation has been turned into a scape goat. People want to see security measures passed. Airplanes were flown into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the crash near Pittsburgh, so airplanes must be punished. Were general aviation airplanes used in the attacks? No- but let's punish them anyway. In fact, a confused young man down in Florida did fly a general aviation airplane into a building in the wake of the attacks, and what happened? The plane was destroyed, and the building sustained minor damages. This shows that small airplanes, on their own, cannot do much damage to a building. I have heard several arguments about why small airplanes are threats, so I will address them. First, is simply that a small airplane will fly into a building. I discussed that above, and that clearly is not a major concern to public safety. The other is that a small plane could be loaded with explosives, and then flown into a building. Well, this is certainly true, but small planes cannot carry very much weight. Far more explosives could be loaded into the back of a van, and driven into a building. In fact, that is how the Oklahoma City bombing occured. And I didn't hear a public outcry for banning all vans in cities. So why try to ban small airplanes from certain areas without banning all other types of vehicles capable of carrying explosives. Third is that airplanes could be used to spread biological or chemical weapons over a city. AOPA commissioned an independent study which has shown that this would be an ineffectual way to spread the chemical or biological weapons. But even if it were effective, there are other ways to do this. The easiest way I can think of, and it would keep the terrorists out of the delivery vehicle, is to use balloons with a remote control actuator to release the weapon. A fairly well known story is that of the Lawn Chair Pilot. Basically, a man tied a bunch of helium balloons to a chair, and floated around at a pretty high altitude. This shows that balloons can be used to lift a fairly decent weight. Do a few of them over a city, which would take about as many people as hijacked the airplanes that hit New York, and you've got the whole city covered. And they could be launched from directly in the city, so there would be no warning for fighters to intercept, like would happen with a small plane.

And it took me all of five minutes to think up these ideas. What would a terrorist be able to think up who had months or years to plan an attack? And don't take this as meaning I think we should have even more stringent security methods. I think our security now is pretty good. Just that now that the knee jerk reactions to the attack are over, we need to stop and look at all the measures that were imposed, and determine if they actually are doing any good or not, and how much of our freedom they take away.

There is always a compromise between personal freedom and public safety. I accept that I do not have the freedom to shoot a gun randomly, because it would be a hell of a threat to everyone around me. And I grudgingly accept that I will have to sacrifice some freedoms that I don't see as being much of a threat, because others who are knowledgeable do. But I do not accept the fact that I am losing freedoms because irrational laws are being passed which are totally ineffectual, by people who either do not understand what they're doing, or are doing so only to gain votes in the next election.

I'm a private pilot, and we pilots are losing our freedom to fly in certain areas. Yes, some may say that flying isn't a right, but a privelege that the government gives to us. But with that viewpoint, what isn't a privelege from the government? The only fundamental rights we have are those that are guaranteed to us by the Bill of Rights in the Constitution. But that's just a document. If the government wanted to, they could change it. So in effect, those "rights" are really just privelages granted by the government. So, I don't want to give up any of my freedoms. I like living in the U.S. because we do have freedom. If we give up a few freedoms in the name of security, when do we stop? And if we gave it all up just to be safe, we might as well live in a police state.