Handguns and concealed carry permits. Mace. Tasers. Faithful watch dogs. That old pump gun loaded with buckshot stashed in the back of a coat closet. These are the things conservatives invest in to defend our families, our homes, and ourselves.
But they are merely tools. Self-defense — as the passengers of Delta-Northwest Flight 253 proved on Christmas Day — starts with situational awareness and the willingness to act. And, as they also proved, it’s not just a right: it’s a duty.
Situational awareness is a term I learned from the fly-guys. When you’re hurtling along at 1000 miles an hour, knowing where you are (and where you need to be) in relationship to the ground and every other aircraft isn’t a matter of passing interest, it’s a matter of life and death. It’s the same thing for drivers, especially those who are talking on the cell phone while smoking a cigar and driving a car with a six-speed manual transmission.
Being on an airliner or a train is pretty much the opposite, especially at the end of a long trip. On a long transatlantic flight — even in business class — all you want to do is get off the doggone plane, get through customs and home to that waiting hot shower. You’re not thinking about someone seated a few rows in front of you who has a bomb concealed in his underwear.
That’s not your problem, right? They screen everyone, the highly-trained Federal Air Marshals are on board — undercover — and ready to spring into action.
But what if they’re not? What if you’re departing from a high-risk airport such as Amsterdam’s Schipol, with a young Nigerian man aboard whose explosives go undetected? And what if there are no watchful FAMs aboard? It’s not only your problem: it’s the problem of every person on that aircraft.
For all the inconveniences we go through — for all the blue-haired Norwegian grannies who are practically strip-searched regularly at the airports — our security people seem to be unable to stop even the crude kind of attack attempted by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab
on Christmas Day.
No sentient being could have been comforted by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s ABC TV appearance on Sunday morning. No matter the question, she stuck to her mantra of how the system reacted perfectly to the attack, impervious to the question of why the system didn’t interdict it. She said in-flight aircraft were warned, the crew of Flight 253 reacted well and so forth. But she evaded every substantive question Jake Tapper asked.
Tapper asked questions — ranging from why Abdulmutallab wasn’t prevented from getting on the flight to why DHS has spent billions on new technologies but hasn’t yet fielded one of them — and Napolitano ducked every one.
Congressional Republicans should be asking Napolitano some pointy-type questions right now. Such as:
1. Abdulmutallab’s father apparently reported him to the embassy in Lagos, saying he’d turned radical. Who shared that information and with whom? Was there any follow-up?
2. What is the function of the so-called “Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment,” which listed Abdulmatullab, other than to keep DHS bureaucrats employed?
3. What does it take to be promoted from the “TIDE” list to the “no-fly” list?
4. Abdulmutallab has apparently claimed that Yemeni al-Queda planned the attack and provided him with the means. Are those claims true?
5. What preventive actions are being taken while Abdulmutallab’s claims are being investigated?
6. In light of Abdulmutallab’s claims, will the administration delay or cancel plans to release some Gitmo inmates to Yemen?
7. The flight reportedly had no Federal Air Marshals aboard. Why? Schipol is notoriously lax in security.
8. How much has Homeland Security spent on new passenger and baggage-screening technologies? What do we have to show for it?
Which brings us back to our personal dilemma: we can either stop flying — which we mustn’t do — or we can take personally our duty to defend ourselves and our fellow passengers in the air.
TSA shouldn’t panic: no one is advocating sneaking weapons aboard or punching every suspicious person in the gut. But what I am saying is that our right of self defense is also a duty and it has to be undertaken seriously.
We have to be aware, and we have to be willing. How many of us would have reacted as did Jasper Schuringa, the brave Dutch filmmaker who jumped over other passengers to subdue Abdulmutallab and put the underwear fire out? Too few, I’d guess.
And think about this: but for the reported facts that the terrorist apparently had too little of the explosive on him to do much more than hurt himself (about 80 grams, some two-tenths of a pound) and that a detonator failed, Schuringa’s leap might have just taken him through a big hole in the fuselage. Had Abdulmutallab and his commanders not been incompetent, the attack could easily have succeeded. The question now, as always, is when do you act?
It is always thus for those willing to defend themselves. You cannot just punch someone in the nose because they look odd, or even if they have odd mannerisms. Who among us hasn’t muttered something entirely impolite at someone bashing into him with an oversized carry on, or at another uninformative delay announcement? I readily confess to both.
But there are big differences between the ever-increasing indignities of air travel and a real threat to your life. Someone putting too much milk in his coffee isn’t a danger: someone spreading the contents of a little shampoo bottle over that cast on his arm probably is. And anyone who’s trying to set himself on fire needs to be doused and restrained enthusiastically. (Don’t forget that situational awareness thing. While you’re dealing with Perp #1, do encourage your rowmates to look for others).
In the end, you have to decide for yourself. Being alert to your fellow passengers — and willing to react with physical force — is part of your common-law right of self-defense. And in the air, it’s not just our right: it’s our duty.