The Latest Terrorism Non-Menace: Pilot Potty-Break Attacks

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As I pointed out during a controversy last month, The Atlantic has lots of writers with lots of views, and none of us stands guard over others' opinions. I agree with most of what Damien Ma says on our site about China (including in this new video of a talk I had with him about China's "efficient corruption"); most of what Derek Thompson or James Kwak writes about economics; most of what Joshua Green or Ta-Nehisi Coates or Erik Tarloff writes about politics; most of what Alexis Madrigal writes about technology; most of what Jeffrey Goldberg writes about the TSA; most of what Peter Osnos writes about publishing; most of what Garrett Epps or Andrew Cohen writes about the law; most of what Lane Wallace writes about aviation and life, and on through a long list of other writers and topics. Plus every single word by one of our authors. On other topics, I agree and disagree with those same people, and with other writers. But I'm not a Supreme Court justice or an ice-skating judge. I'm not supposed to weigh in with assent or dissent on each entry. It's a big tent.

EXCEPT: Today in our national section we have a piece I think is so completely wrong-headed in presentation and argument that I want to note -- respectfully! -- my disagreement. It's called "How to Hijack an Airplane in Three Seconds," and it has a highly alarmist subhead. (The subhead was added, as was the headline, by my Atlantic colleagues, and I should be clear that my complaint is mainly with the presentation.) Here is the subhead:

"Ten years after 9/11, airline cockpits are vulnerable every time a pilot takes a bathroom break. So why isn't the FAA making secondary barriers a requirement?"Oh, please. This is the kind of fraidy-cat mentality I hoped we had finally begun to evolve beyond during this past decade. I am really sorry to see this item presented with the "vulnerable every time" scaremonger talk.

Yes, this could happen -- "this" being a hijackers' crowded-airplane-cabin.jpgrush on the cockpit during the moment when the pilot opens the door to go to the bathroom. 

  • Potential hijackers could get through all the TSA impedimenta with weapons that could overcome flight attendants, pilots, and other passengers;  
  • They could avoid attracting any flight crews' attention through the hours in which they waited for the pilots to take a break;
  • They could bet on the fact that the pilots would be going to the bathroom -- which often doesn't happen at all on flights of less than two or three hours; and on the longer flights, by the time the pilots are restive, the plane has burned off a lot of fuel and is likely over the ocean or the wilderness;
  • They could be sure that the aisles were clear, with no food trays or other people in their way at the crucial time;
  • They could bet on choosing a flight with no air marshals aboard, in seats near the front of the plane;
  • They could also bet they'd chosen one of the flights on which the flight attendants don't make a point of standing in front of the cockpit, and turning carts at a 90 degree angle to block the aisles, when the pilots want to open the door (as they have done on every long flight I've been on in recent years - I've noticed);
  • They could be sure they'd get out of their seats in time and make their way up to the front of the plane at just the moment the door was ajar;
  • They could be sure no crew member or passenger would stop them;
  • They could force their way into the cockpit door during the moment when the person leaving the cockpit was out of the way but before the door had closed;
  • They could bet that the other pilot still in the cockpit had nothing to fight them with (despite the spectacle of pilots having to go through TSA fingernail-clipper screening, some are authorized safety officers who are allowed to carry weapons);
  •  They could get the cockpit door closed before anyone else could do anything;
  • And then they'd be in control of the plane.

It could happen.

What's a lot more likely to happen is that ground crews could sneak something dangerous onto a plane. Or baggage handlers could. Or a rogue flight attendant. Or somebody could walk into an airport lobby with a bomb, before the security screening. Or shoot up a shopping center. Or wreak any other kind of mayhem. Or that we'll die in a car crash or of cancer.

So it is a theoretical risk, one of many and hardly the most alarming. But the essence of resilience in the face of ongoing threats is keeping them in perspective. We guard against threats; we try not to exaggerate them; and we recognize that absence of fear-mongering is itself a social good and a measure of success. Suppose every water tap said: "Wait a minute, terrorists could have poisoned the reservoir. Then you'll die!" Suppose every subway and bus stop said, "Any person near you could be carrying A BOMB!!!" At a literal level it's true, but hysteria doesn't help anyone -- except, the terrorists!

The best security-world news in years is the recent set of indications from the head of the TSA (!), John Pistole, of a shift toward trying to identify people who might cause harm, rather than treating every traveler as an equally threatening potential terrorist. Or every passenger as someone contemplating a rush toward the cockpit. Prudence, resilience, and bravery, yes. Scare-mongering no. We'll savor the moment in which the TSA is giving lessons to our magazine on how to calm down.



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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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