The Greatest Crime of All

You have to feel a little sorry for the poor saps at the Transportation Security Administration. A 20-year-old college student sneaks, with apparent ease, illegal items'box cutters, bleach, matches, and 'modeling clay resembling plastic explosives''onto two Southwest Airlines jets in mid-September. It takes airline personnel over a month to discover the items. It later emerges that the student, Nathaniel Heatwole, has done the same thing four other times since February and that the federal government has been investigating since April, when two of Heatwole's earlier care packages were found on board airplanes. Nevertheless, we learn, the feds weren't getting very far and might never have caught up with the culprit had Heatwole not e-mailed the TSA to inform them that he was the one who was responsible'and even then, it took them three weeks or more from the time he e-mailed them until they arrested him. No, things are not looking good for our fine federal friends.

As I predicted in the STR blog on Friday, the feds are going to come down on Heatwole with everything they've got. Oddly enough, practically everything he did would have been perfectly legal in the pre-9/11 U.S.A. The 9/11 hijackers took box cutters legally onto the airplanes they intended to hijack. Smokers, no doubt, were permitted to take matches onto airplanes; and if not, they were surely permitted to have lighters, which are no less dangerous. Modeling clay was not then, nor is it now (though it may be in the future as a reaction to this incident), considered contraband, no matter how much it resembles plastic explosives. Furthermore, it can fairly be asked what crime there is in merely possessing certain items on board an airplane if one doesn't use them to bring, or even threaten, harm to anyone. Most of Heatwole's 'crimes' are only considered crimes because of the ridiculous overreactions of the Bush administration to a catastrophic event.

What really has Heatwole in hot water, then, is not his supposed crimes of smuggling 'dangerous' items onto commercial jetliners. No, what really has him in trouble is that he made the feds look bad (not that that's very hard) and then taunted them with notes in the bags of contraband. The government can tolerate almost any amount of lawbreaking'witness how many criminals are granted immunity if they'll squeal on the folks the government really wants to nail'but it will not tolerate being shown up in public. Accordingly, the government is hoping to put Heatwole away for up to 10 years, and you can be sure they'll do so as publicly and as loudly as possible in order to dissuade other troublemakers from following in Heatwole's footsteps.

Similarly, the feds are considering filing criminal charges against ABC News personnel who smuggled depleted uranium into the country last month. The depleted uranium, according to ABC, is harmless and perfectly legal to transport. What got the goat of the federal government is that (a) the uranium got by their eagle-eyed Customs inspectors and (b) it's the second time in as many years that ABC has pulled the same stunt successfully. No real crime was committed either time, but the feds are more than a little embarrassed about the whole thing, so watch out, ABC.

The fact of the matter is that, given the sheer number of flights and passengers that pass through America's airports every day, there is absolutely no way the federal government can possibly screen every passenger and every piece of luggage adequately to ensure that arbitrarily prohibited items do not make their way onto airplanes. As the Heatwole incident shows, any determined individual with half a brain can easily buffalo the new and improved federal security screeners. Besides, mere possession of an item does not prove that one intends to use that item in a manner harmful to others. As usual, the government is attacking the symptom rather than the problem.

The problem is that the person who does intend to do harm can be fairly well assured of passing through all the security checkpoints and random baggage checks (a more pointless policy than this would be hard to find) with all of the weapons he desires still in his possession; but, on the other hand, the rest of the passengers, having obeyed the TSA's stupid mandates and submitted to its intrusive searches, will be entirely at the criminal's mercy. Trying to prevent weapons or potential weapons from turning up on board an airplane is like trying to prevent leaks from the White House.

The solution, then, is not to concentrate on the symptom (i.e., the possibility of weapons on board an airplane), but instead to concentrate on the problem (i.e., the fact that everyone else is at the mercy of the person holding the weapons). In other words, let pilots and passengers take guns or other weapons with them onto airplanes. (This was, in fact, standard operating procedure in the U.S. until 1970, when metal detectors were installed in airports. Now, if you had to choose a year in which you would feel safe flying, would you pick 1963 or 2003?) If there's a possibility that even one other airplane passenger besides a criminal is armed, what are the odds that the criminal will take the chance of being shot while trying to hijack the plane?

It's a fact that gun control on the ground makes people less safe. The places with the highest crime rates are also the places with the strictest gun control laws. Conversely, the places with the most lenient gun laws are generally the lowest crime areas. Why shouldn't the same logic apply to gun control in the air?

Will the TSA make the only logical and moral decision? That is, will it stop trampling on the rights of the law-abiding in a vain attempt to catch the lawbreakers, in the process making the law-abiding more vulnerable? Will it stop persecuting those who expose the flaws in its methodology? If you said yes to any of the preceding questions, then you don't know our government very well. The last thing the government would do is the right thing. After all, if the government were to get out of the way and, as a result, the skies turned out to be safer and the airline industry revived, that could be mighty embarrassing for the bureaucrats in Washington 'and embarrassing the government, clearly, is the greatest crime of all.

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Michael Tennant's picture
Columns on STR: 30

Michael Tennant is a software developer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.