- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 29, 2001

Country chanteuse Patty Loveless sings a rueful song: "I know all of my prayers were answered sometimes 'yes,' a lot of times 'no.' " The host of solutions to terrorism offered since Sept. 11 are much the same: Some are genuine, but many are bogus.

There is, of course, no way to entirely solve the problem of mass murder undertaken for political ends. Terrorists can always find ways to spill blood. Even the ceaseless vigilance exercised by Israelis doesn't prevent the occasional suicide bomber from finding his victims.

But here, as in Israel, the killers' errand can be made more complicated and time-consuming. And the carnage can be contained. There are few conceivable ways besides commandeering airliners that a terrorist group could bring down two giant skyscrapers, snuffing out thousands of lives.

If we can prevent a repetition of the sort of hijackings that occurred this time, we may force the enemy into less spectacular and destructive types of violence. When terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in 1993, with a truck bomb, they killed six people.

The immediate problem is the security of commercial airliners. These attacks dramatized the risks of making the cockpit accessible to hijackers. Had the terrorists been kept away from the controls, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon could not have been hit. So it seems obvious that pilots should be walled off behind unbreachable doors, as they are on Israel's El Al airline.

With that protection, the possible casualties in an attack would be limited to the passengers on board. But in reality, there probably would be no victims at all because the terrorists would be deterred from trying a hijacking in the first place.

For some people, however, this measure isn't enough. The Air Line Pilots Association says its members should be allowed to carry firearms to protect themselves and those on board. "It seems quite incredible to me that I am entrusted daily with a $40 million aircraft and the lives of many hundreds of passengers, but the FAA, in their questionable wisdom, does not trust me with a firearm," said one pilot in a letter to the agency.

The question is not whether pilots are trustworthy. It's what would be achieved by arming them. In case of an attempted hijacking, a captain, armed or not, would be foolish to open the cockpit, giving terrorists a chance to gain control. And deadly weapons are a third-best remedy in a crowded cabin, since any shots that are fired may kill innocent people. Nonlethal instruments like stun guns would make far more sense.

Another proposal is to place federal marshals on airliners to thwart terrorists. This option makes great sense until you consider the scope and cost of any program worth having.

Before Sept. 11, there were more than 25,000 commercial airline flights in the United States every day. Putting a single marshal on every one would require hiring several times that many people to cover all the shifts, since airlines fly day and night, 365 days a year. "We'd have to have something the size of the U.S. Marines," says aviation consultant Michael Boyd.

At the height of the sky marshal program of the 1970s and '80s, there were only a couple of thousand agents. Currently, there are only a few dozen. Even if undercover marshals were placed on just a few flights for their deterrent value, thousands would have to be hired. The question no one has asked is whether that's the best use of law enforcement agents at a time like this.

If other measures are taken, such as securing the cockpit and preventing passengers from taking weapons on board, the extra value of an air marshal is minimal. An unarmed terrorist confined to the cabin would be able to wreak relatively little havoc so little that he would probably look for a more lucrative target. Once the more basic needs of aviation security are addressed, air marshals should be an expensive redundancy.

Likewise with closing Reagan National Airport in Washington, which has been shut down because planes taking off and landing there come so close to vital federal sites like the Pentagon and the White House. But the Boeing 757 that hit the Pentagon took off from Dulles International, which is less than 25 miles away seconds for a jet aircraft. The danger, once again, arises only if a terrorist invades the cockpit. Prevent that, and Reagan is as safe as any airport in a populated area.

In an hour of crisis, the temptation is to think any new measures are good, and that more are better than less. Given what happened on Sept. 11, it's vital that we start improving our defenses against terrorism. But it's also important that we know where to stop.

Steve Chapman is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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