Oct. 17, 2006 at 7:00 AM ET
It’s privacy week at MSNBC.com. We’ve tried to examine that very complex topic from many angles in the hopes of beginning a wider dialog on the subject. We only lightly touched on privacy’s twin subject -- the yin of privacy’s yang – security. A deeper look at that subject will come in the coming weeks and months.
Suffice to say that we have all been asked to surrender some of our privacy with the promise of increasing our level of security.
But have we succeeded in making ourselves safer? Last week’s tragic death of Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle in a New York City airplane crash raises this issue. Are all Americans being asked to make the same sacrifices in the name of security? Lidle’s ill-fated flight suggests a disturbing answer. To get there, we must ask this obvious question: How could someone fly a plane into a New York City high-rise without anyone knowing that an aircraft was there?
For a frantic two hours last week, I watched and listened as NBC aviation producer Jay Blackman and aviation correspondent Tom Costello tried to understand what happened when an unidentified small aircraft struck a Manhattan apartment building. Initial reports suggested it was an accident, but that’s what the initial reports indicated on Sept.11, 2001, too. As billowing thick smoke blocked most views of the damaged building, no one knew what to think.
The mystery of the missing aircraft was just as thick. The FAA initially had no comment on the aircraft – where it was going or where it came from. No nearby airports reported any missing aircraft. No air traffic controller reported losing a plane. No one seemed to have any idea where this plane was headed, feeding fears that foul play could be involved.
Then, an unexpected answer began to emerge. Blackman learned that the pilot was flying under visual flight rules, so no flight plan was necessary. It was possible -- even likely -- that no air traffic controller had been in contact with the pilot before the crash.
How could that be? The obvious question was followed by loud debate among aviation experts in the newsroom. There were no such free flight zones over Manhattan, some argued. How could there be? With images of planes flying into buildings seared into the minds of New Yorkers, could any area around America’s most densely populated city be open to any small aircraft that someone chose to fly there?
The answer, to much amazement, was “yes.”
A Wild West for pilots
No one knew this plane would be flying around New York’s precious monuments and high-rise buildings because no one had to know. Until last week, anyone could fly a plane over New York’s Hudson and East Rivers unannounced, so long as the pilot maintained a low altitude and stayed over the rivers. This area around New York City was essentially a Wild West for pilots. No need to check in with government air traffic cops; no need to fill out the paperwork.
I know this might sound like a New York story, but it’s not. It’s a story about a double-standard. Behind much of America’s security plans, you’ll find this sad truth: The masses are being subject to incredible inconveniences, and worse, but not everyone is being treated the same.
Until recently, you or I couldn’t take a bottle of water or a tube of toothpaste on an airplane. Mothers were forced to drink their babies’ milk. Elderly women were subject to humiliating pat-down searches. And yet hobby pilots had free run of the sky around Manhattan.
Security in America is a dangerous farce; it’s busywork for tens of thousands of Transportation Security Agency officials, harassment for innocent Americans and full of holes that any slightly determined terrorist could drive an explosive-laden truck through. We are worrying about the wrong things.
After the crash, numerous New York politicians took to the airwaves castigating the FAA for its lax airspace rules. There was one significant exception. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, himself a hobby pilot, defended the FAA. His was a vote essentially in support of these more informal flight rules.
The position is indefensible. Let me rephrase it: Patting down grandma is fair game; forcing some paperwork onto a pilot flying into the most vulnerable, populated place in America is not? That’s madness.
More important, it’s a terrible double-standard.
No hassles for the priveleged
Look more closely at America’s security and you’ll see many examples of such elitism. It starts with elite frequent fliers, who don’t have to stand in long security lines at airports. All the plebes do.
On July 23, 2003, New York City Council candidate Othniel Boaz Askew was able to shoot and kill council member and rival James Davis with a gun in school headquarters at City Hall, even though entrance to the building required a trip through a magnetometer. How? Askew used his politicians’ privilege -- a courtesy wave around from security guards at the magnetometer.
An isolated incident? Hardly. In 2002, undercover investigators from Congress’ auditing arm, the General Accounting Office, used fake law enforcement credentials to get the free pass around the magnetometers at various federal office buildings around the country.
What we see here is class warfare on the security battleground. The reaction to Sept. 11 has led to harassment, busywork, and inconvenience for us all – well, almost all. A select few who know the right people, hold the right office or own the right equipment don’t suffer the ordeals. They are waved around security checkpoints or given broad exceptions to security lockdowns.
If you want to know why America’s security is so heavy on busywork and inconvenience and light on practicality, consider this: The people who make the rules don’t have to live with them. Public officials, some law enforcement officers and those who can afford expensive hobbies are often able to pull rank.
Class warfare isn’t new. But in this form it is dangerous. By paying attention to the wrong things – grandma at the airport – we are ignoring the right things – identifying the most dangerous people. By training an army of low-paid workers to harass us all at airports by taking away our cologne, we aren’t doing the right things – hiring, training and rewarding an elite force of employees specially equipped to keep those who would hurt us off our airplanes and away from our bridges and tunnels.
As written earlier in this space, while we lavish billions of dollars on high-tech security projects of dubious efficacy -- such as massive data mining of phone records or telephone calls -- we put ourselves at risk by adopting a very false sense of security.
If you doubt these misplaced priorities, think about the small fleet of aircraft that have buzzed by New York City buildings freely since 9/11. Then think about all the nail clippers and makeup you’ve been asked to surrender before boarding an airplane.
Only days after the Cory Lidle plane crash, the FAA did an about-face on its New York airspace rules. Now, pilots who want to fly along the East River -- that is, along Manhattan’s east side -- must file a flight plan. No one can fly there now unless under direct control of an air traffic cop. That rational step is five years to late, but a step in the right direction.
Does the ruling signal a change in approach on America’s security? Does it suggest my double-standard theory might be wrong?
The FAA was silent on the issue of airspace along Manhattan’s west side. So small planes still have free run of the Hudson River. Now there’s a double-standard, even from one side of Manhattan to the other.
But even if the case could be made for a double-standard, that there’s no risk to allowing some people to enjoy a brisker walk through airport security checkpoints, the case can’t be made for irrational security rules. Allowing planes to fly unannounced anywhere near New York City is pure foolishness, but I believe is indicative of an administration that seems more interested in keeping the masses confused, scared and busy than one that’s ready to take the most basic steps to make us safer.