A new Polish law gives authorities the power to order hijacked airliners shot down — a post-Sept. 11 measure that underscores growing terrorism concerns in Europe but drew criticism when enacted in Germany.
The law allows the defense minister or air force chief to order the downing of civilian or military aircraft whose hijackers refuse to land.
“This is certainly one of the hardest decisions which would have to be taken if such an event took place,” Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski said.
The law, which took effect Thursday, was introduced to meet “threats in the current world following the Sept. 11 tragedy,” said Defense Ministry spokesman Col. Leszek Laszczak. “The fact we have never had such problems does not mean that we should not be prepared.”
Echoes across Europe
As a staunch U.S. ally in the war on Iraq and leader of the postwar international security force stationed near Baghdad, Poland has been threatened by extremist Islamic groups with revenge attacks on its soil. Another possible danger could come from Chechen separatists hijacking Russian airliners, many of which pass over Poland and Germany.
Russian law does not say whether authorities there can shoot down hijacked planes, but a new anti-terrorism bill approved by parliament last month — but criticized as giving excessive power to authorities — gives the go-ahead.
German President Horst Koehler reluctantly signed a measure similar to Poland’s into law Wednesday, saying the country’s constitution bars the government from killing its citizens even if it saves the lives of others, and urging a high court review.
Three of the four Sept. 11 suicide hijackers lived and studied in Germany before attacking the United States, and German fears of a similar attack were further heightened when a man stole a small plane in January 2003 and circled the skyscrapers in Frankfurt’s financial district, at one point threatening to crash into the European Central Bank. He eventually landed without causing any harm and was arrested.
Despite Koehler’s misgivings, German Defense Minister Peter Struck said Thursday he was convinced the law would be deemed constitutional and that as far as he was concerned, it was now binding. “I would now give the order to shoot.”
In the United States, the White House ordered the shooting down of any commercial jet that entered Washington airspace and refused to turn back during the tense moments after the Sept. 11 attacks. Later that month, the Pentagon said two air force generals had been authorized to order the downing of civilian airliners appearing to threaten U.S. cities.
Several other European countries allow the shooting down of hijacked airplanes, including Hungary and the Czech Republic, while Italy has less formal guidelines allowing the action.
Some countries have allowed it only for security-sensitive events, such as Spain and Greece, which made an exception for the Olympic Games.
Decision time: Two minutes
Because of the many international conferences held in Switzerland, including the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Swiss defense minister was given blanket authority to order the shooting down of any airliners in unauthorized air space if necessary.
“In the wake of Sept. 11, we were obliged to guarantee a certain standard of security,” said Swiss President Samuel Schmid, who also serves as defense minister.
Schmid said he would give the order to fire only if Swiss military planes had failed to persuade the aircraft to land, and after determining that it presented a real threat because it was headed for a particular target.
But “from the moment I’m alerted until the moment I need to give the order, it’s a maximum 90 seconds to two minutes.”
Sweden does not allow hijacked aircraft to be shot down under any circumstances. “We can try to drive them off, but not order them shot down,” said Defense Ministry spokeswoman Paula Burreau.
In Britain, a spokesman for the Department of Transport said the government doesn’t comment on operational matter related to security. But it is widely believed that Britain would shoot down a hijacked airliner if necessary, said Chris Yates, a specialist in aviation security at Jane’s Airport Review.