Skip to comments.Mark Steyn: The high cost of cultural passivity
Posted on 09/18/2001 12:16:30 PM PDT by jodorowsky
There are standard formulations even for atrocity. "The Provisional IRA," some BBC announcer would intone week after week for 30 years, "has claimed responsibility for the bomb which exploded at ... " Enniskillen, Canary Wharf, Omagh, Hyde Park, wherever.
No one in the Middle East has yet "claimed responsibility" for the massacres of last Tuesday. So perhaps it would help if someone in the United States did. The obvious candidate is the Federal Aviation Administration, which is guilty on two counts.
First, it failed to prevent last week's hijackings: The killers attempted to seize four planes and succeeded in seizing four planes. Had they attempted to seize another 30 planes, who can doubt that they would have maintained their pristine 100% success rate? What happened on Tuesday was not the odd guy slipping through a few "cracks in the system", but a completely cracked system, whose failure was total. The scale of the disaster was constrained only by the murderers' ambition and manpower.
Secondly, and more importantly, the many and elaborate "security" measures the FAA did have in place contributed directly to the transformation of a small contained horror into a mass catastrophe.
The FAA is perhaps the third most famous U.S. governmental acronym on the planet, after the FBI and CIA. Any foreigner flying on foreign airlines into Chicago or Dallas or Atlanta gets used to the rote incantation that "FAA regulations prohibit" this or that humdrum manoeuvre. What an awesome agency: Don't light up a furtive cigarette in the bathroom over Greenland; the FAA will know and they will get you! In the small municipal airport of Lebanon, New Hampshire, the only signs behind the ticket desk solemnly inform you the FAA has determined that, say, Lagos International Airport in Nigeria is unsafe. You can't fly to Lagos from Lebanon, N. H. There's merely a flight per day to New York, Philadelphia and Boston. But, whether because they were preoccupied with grading Lagos or for some other reason, no one at the FAA ever determined Logan Airport, Boston, was unsafe - though, as we now know, it is, profoundly so.
It's for that reason that it's important that the FAA administrator, Jane Garvey, and her senior staff are asked to resign. It is time for them to acknowledge "responsibility." If this is, as President Bush says, "the first war of the 21st century," then here are a couple of relevant precedents:
After the fall of France, Neville Chamberlain resigned.
Two days after the Argentine invasion of the Falklands in 1981, Peter Carrington, Britain's Foreign Secretary, Humphrey Atkins, the Lord Privy Seal, and Richard Luce, the Minister for Latin-American Affairs, all resigned. Lord Carrington felt "it was a matter of honour" -- they were the men charged with both guaranteeing the security of the Falklands and evaluating General Galtieri's regime in Buenos Aires. "I was wrong in the assessment of what they were doing," said Carrington, "and therefore I am responsible" -- that word again. In interviews he reiterated the point: "There has been a British humiliation. I ought to take responsibility for it."
If those comparisons are too highfalutin, then let's keep it simple: If a municipal highway engineer had four bridges collapse on the same day, he'd be expected to quit. It's easy for bureaucrats to hide under the language of grief that the media instinctively deploy -- "tragedy," "sorrow," "pain." What happened on Tuesday may well be a "tragedy," but it is also, for the responsible regulatory agency, all the things Fleet Street called the Falklands invasion: a "humiliation," "fiasco," "disgrace."
And yet it seems that no one is planning to resign. And, worse, they're carrying on exactly as before, with another ton of cumbersome regulations that won't improve the safety of a single American. The most pitiful performance of last week was Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta solemnly announcing that, effective immediately, there would be no more steak knives in first class and no more plastic knives anywhere. How they must be quaking in Osama's training camps! How does forcing millions of travellers to eat their rubber chickens with forks make commercial aviation one jot safer?
Ms. Garvey is a Clinton appointee, Mr. Mineta a Bush one. It's not a left/right thing, but something broader that speaks very poorly for our culture. The airline cabin is the most advanced model of the modern social-democratic state, the rarefied version of trends that, on the ground, progress more slowly. There is no smoking. There is 100% gun control. You are obliged by law to do everything the cabin crew tell you to do. If the stewardess is rude to you, tough. If you're rude to her, there'll be officers waiting to arrest you when you land. The justification for all this is a familiar one -- that in return for surrendering individual liberties, we'll all be collectively better off. That was the deal: Do as you're told, and the FAA will look after you.
On Tuesday morning, they failed spectacularly to honour their end of the bargain -- as I'm sure the terrorists knew they would. By all accounts, they travelled widely during the long preparations for their mission, and they must have seen that an airline cabin is the one place where, thanks to the FAA, you can virtually guarantee you'll meet no resistance. Indeed, in their FAA-mandated coerciveness the average coach-class cabin is the nearest the Western world gets to the condition of those terrorists' home states. We've all experienced those bad weather delays where you're stuck on the runway behind 60 other planes waiting to take off and some guy says, "Hey, we've been in here a couple of hours now. Any chance of a Diet Coke?", and the stewardess says he'll have to wait, and the guy's cranky enough to start complaining. And one part of you thinks, "Yeah, I'm pretty thirsty, too", but the rest of you, the experienced traveller, goes, c'mon, sit down, pal, quit whining, don't make a fuss, they'll only delay us even more.
And so, on those Boston flights, everyone followed FAA guidelines: the cabin crew, the pilots, the passengers. There were four or five fellows with knives or box-cutters, outnumbered more than ten to one. If they'd tried to hold up that many people in a parking lot, they'd have been beaten to a pulp. But up in the air everyone swallowed the FAA's assurance: Go along with them, be co-operative, the Feds know how to handle these things. I'm sure there were men and women in those seats thinking, well, there's not very many of them and they don't have any real weapons, maybe if some of us were to ... But by the time they realized they were beyond the protection of the FAA it was too late.
We cannot know all that occurred on three of Tuesday's four terrible flights. Barbara Olson's 10 attempted cellphone calls to the Justice Department, trying to persuade them to put her through to her husband, suggests at the least that there were people in those seats willing to defy their captors.
But we do know a lot of what happened on that fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93. Thomas Burnett, Jeremy Glick, Mark Bingham and perhaps others phoned their families to tell them they loved them and to say goodbye. Then they rushed the hijackers. The plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, not at Camp David or the White House. Jeremy Glick knew he would never see his three-month-old daughter again, but he also understood that he could play a small part in preserving a world for her to grow up in. By being willing to sacrifice themselves, Mr. Glick and his comrades saved thousands, perhaps including even the Vice-President and other senior officials. They took, in a word, responsibility.
Could you or I do that? This will be a long, messy, bloody war, in which civilians -- salesmen, waitresses, accountants, Canadian tourists -- are in the front line. America will need more Jeremy Glicks, and not just in the air. What Dave Kopel, in a brilliant column for National Review, calls the "culture of passivity" is spread very wide throughout the West -- the belief that government knows best and that citizens have sub-contracted out their responsibilities to protect and defend their liberty. The question of whether America and its allies have the will to wage this war depends, in large part, on our ability to resist that "culture of passivity."
We know now that the government wasn't up there over upstate New York when Flight 11 doglegged and began homing in on Manhattan. We know, too, that when you're facing terrorists willing to kill and die that the decisive moments are the first -- the few minutes before they've established control or killed their first stewardess. So the next time it happens, we can follow FAA guidelines -- or we can say screw 'em and their worthless assurances, and rush forward to overpower the fanatics, even if the FAA has seen to it we've nothing to charge them with except the rubber chicken.
If you want a name for it, try the "Minutemen" -- the men of the Revolutionary War who were pledged to take the field at a minute's notice. In this new war, we are all called upon to be Minutemen.
The heroism of the passengers of Flight 93 deserves America's highest honours. And, instead of indulging in gestures like confiscating plastic knives, the government should summon up the will to match their courage.
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I have been saying essentially the same thing about "airport security" (that very unfunny joke on the traveling public) for about 15 years. The idea that doing MORE OF THE SAME is going to make a difference is ludicrous.
But, of course, allowing anyone but a duly authorized Federal Agent to be armed on a commercial airliner would be unthinkable, wouldn't it? I mean, someone could get hurt.
Anyway, the next terrorist outrage will not be following this same script. These people are evil, but they are NOT stupid.
Use your own imagination, but I personally am not planning to visit San Francisco or Los Angeles again for the duration of the war. (Unless I am ordered there).
During WWII, it was standard procedure for military pilots to carry 45 autos. After the war, many of them who went to work in the airlines continued to carry them in their map cases, up till 1962. When someone thought that it might be a good idea to disarm them, and wrote a rule to that effect.
The first hijacking was in 1964.
For all those who are cynical about the state of the American spirit after years of comparative peace and indulgence, I offer the fact that Mark Bingham, Jeremy Glick, Todd Beamer and Tom Burnett were all thirty-somethings. Generation Xers who, when their time came, did what they knew their country needed them to do.
One last thought about United #93. It marked the end of skyjacking. Forever. And not because of any tougher security measures that the FAA might implement.
Instead, the terrorist now knows that he cannot count on the passive plane-load of passengers and, instead, faces a concerted attack. Under the circumstances, there is no longer any percentage in attempting to commandeer a jetliner.
I'd hate to be the next guy who hijacks an airliner hoping to hitch a ride to Cuba. The passengers will tear him limb from limb.
Proving once again that the best security available is nothing more than a willingness to defend one's self.
Americans can learn a lot from the example set by United #93.
Wrong! Mineta is the only Democrat in Bush's Cabinet and was in Clinton's Cabinet. It's the usual left/left thing.
If the President wants to be seen in charge, he could start by asking Mr. Mineta to resign. But if the Bush Administration is going to let stand an order to confiscate plastic steak knives from airline passengers, then we're all most certainly doomed. Any national government which would focus on such a petty matter is incapable of effective action to protect its citizens.
But we already know that. We saw it last week.
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