In the wake of September 11, homeland protection has become mandatory. However, weve been warned time and time again that despite all efforts to thwart future terrorist attacks, America is still vulnerable. In fact, weve been told such attacks are a virtual certainty.
Some national security measures already adopted or being debated by Congress and the Administration are necessary. Others? Only time will tell. One issue intensively debated over the past 10 months is the arming of commercial airline pilots. By all intuition and logic, that should be a no-brainer. As the Wall Street Journal so graphically noted, "this really isnt a choice between guns and no guns; its between giving pilots a last chance to stop a hijacking or having the Air Force shoot down a loaded passenger plane."
"Do you really think that 9/11 would have happened if our pilots had been armed, as they should have been armed?" asked House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Don Young (R-AK) during a recent debate.
While no one can answer that question with certainty, the House of Representatives last week overwhelmingly responded (voting 310-113) by authorizing pilots to carry guns in the cockpit as a "last line of defense" against would-be terrorists.
The measure initially called for establishment of a two-year test project that would have allowed no more than 1,400 commercial pilots (a mere two percent) to carry guns on board. A last minute amendment on the House floor, introduced by Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR), expanded the legislation to include all domestic pilots who volunteer and undergo firearm training administered by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), newly created last fall. Upon successful completion of the training, pilots would be deputized as Federal Flight Deck Officers.
Congress initially left the decision to arm pilots to the TSA. In May, TSA Head John Magaw made public his decision not to arm pilots, echoing the Bush Administrations recorded position that "[experts] view other methods as being more effective." Wrong decision -- according to the House of Representatives. Following the House vote and several high profile instances where airport screeners failed to detect weapons, Chairman Young (R-AK) said, "Congress is sending a message to the TSA. You either shape up or were going to start passing legislation to get you to do what should be done."
On July 18, John Magaw announced his resignation from the TSA. It is unclear if Congressional pressure had anything to do with it.
In addition to resistance from the Bush Administration, the bill now faces an uphill battle in the Senate, where several key members have expressed strong opposition to arming pilots. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman Ernest Hollings (D-SC) refuses to allow a committee vote on such a measure, despite support ranging from Senator Zell Miller (D-GA) to Barbara Boxer (D-CA). Senate supporters are now seeking to bypass Hollings committee by attaching legislation (similar to that passed by the House), sponsored by Senator Bob Smith (R-NH) and 13 other senators, as an amendment to already pending legislation.
No one can predict when, where and how terrorists will strike again. But we know theyre coming, and we cant rule out the prospect that airlines will yet again be first the target and then the weapon. Armed pilots could mean the difference between safer skies and another calamity.