- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 26, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

In 1996, Vice President Al Gore was named by President Clinton to chair the White House Commission on Aviation Safety. Over the months that followed, he and an impressive list of commissioners - including senior law-enforcement and military officers, government officials and academics - conducted “an intensive inquiry into civil aviation safety, security and air traffic control modernization.” In early 1997, they issued a final report, including a set of recommendations that, as Mr. Gore stated confidently, “will serve to enhance and ensure the continued safety and security of our air transportation system.”

I suspect you know where I’m heading. Despite such acts of terrorism as the 1993 World Trade Center attack and despite Osama bin Laden’s “Declaration of War” against the United States (published in August 1996), Mr. Gore’s inquiry did not recognize that terrorism was more pressing than “air traffic control modernization” or the other issues under examination.

Terrorism was covered in Chapter Three, titled “Improving Security for Travelers.” The Gore commission concluded: “There must be a concerted national will to fight terrorism. There must be a willingness to apply sustained economic, political and commercial pressure on countries sponsoring terrorists. There must be an unwavering commitment to pursuing terrorists and bringing them to justice. There must be the resolve to punish those who would violate sanctions imposed against terrorist states.”

Of course, there was to be none of that, not in any serious sense, over the next few years, the years leading up to 2001. As for the commissioners’ specific recommendations, these included the “development of profiling programs,” but they added that all passengers should be “subject to the same level of scrutiny” and that “no profile should contain or be based on” such criteria as “national origin” or “religious or gender characteristics.”

In other words, had any airport officials on Sept. 11, 2001, been suspicious about Muslim men of Saudi or other Middle Eastern origin boarding passenger planes, and had they suggested subjecting those young men to additional scrutiny - that would have been impermissible under the Gore commission guidelines.

Other recommendations focused on ways to prevent explosives from being placed aboard planes, but there was nothing about using commonplace implements, such as box-cutters, to take control of a plane, nothing about fully fueled passenger jets being turned into missiles to bring down buildings.

What recommendations might have been implemented to prevent terrorists with homicidal/suicidal intentions from successfully completing their missions? To name just a few: installing fortified and lockable cockpit doors; training pilots to conduct abrupt maneuvers - e.g., dives and rolls - to disable passengers disobeying orders to sit down and buckle their seatbelts; training and arming members of flight crews; and placing air marshals on planes. Such recommendations are - at least in retrospect - conspicuously absent.

I bring all this up not to criticize Mr. Gore but rather to illustrate how difficult it can be to recognize which challenges are most urgent. Finding solutions - real solutions - can be even harder.

So when it comes to determining how much missile defense is sufficient; the consequences should Iran’s ruling mullahs acquire nuclear weapons; whether coercive interrogations should ever be permissible; what would result from abandoning the battle against the Taliban in Afghanistan; which reforms will improve, not damage, America’s health care system; and, yes, whether “climate change” should be at the top of the international agenda, as it was this week at the United Nations “summit” in New York - we would be wise to exercise caution.

If, as has been said many times, war is too important to leave to the generals, some other issues are too important to leave to politicians and their favorite experts. In a democracy, responsible citizens, sensible people, ordinary people - people such as you and I - need to resist the temptation to trust elites to handle things for us. We need, instead, to do the arduous work of figuring things out for ourselves. We need to deliberate and decide these issues as if our lives depended on it. Because they do.

Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.

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