Sunday, May 18, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - Box Cutter Terrorists - #24


On September 11th, 2001, like so many others around the country, I sat stunned in front of my television as first one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center and then the other collapsed in a horrendous funeral pyre. As word came out that the tragedy was work of Muslim terrorist skyjackers I felt a pang of personal guilt: if only I – once upon a time a trained Sky Marshal (aka Air Marshal) – had been on one of those flights perhaps things might have been different.

When it was revealed that the terrorists had commandeered the planes using…box cutters…I was indignant. Of course, I wasn’t on any of the planes so I won’t judge those now dead, but I know that no soldier, policeman, fire fighter or anyone else trained to serve the public at their own personal risk would have been daunted by a box cutter – especially if they knew the alternative was not just their own death but that of everyone around them.

Maybe those on board the ill-fated flights thought, or allowed themselves to be convinced, that the terrorists had somewhat less destructive agenda - say kidnapping for ransom - and figured it was best to go along with the program. Perhaps they would have acted differently had they known, as did the passengers of United Flight 93, who took action when they learned the fate of other hijacked planes.

After 9-11, there was a lot of press about the rebirth of the Sky Marshal program, hardening cockpit doors, providing weapons for pilots, not to forget the creation of a chaotic and maddening pre-flight passenger screening process. None of this would have been, or would be, necessary if a potential skyjacker knew for certain that any attempt to commander a public flight would result in his being torn to pieces by the passengers…box cutter or not.

Am I preaching vigilante-ism? Not at all. Wikipedia defines a vigilante is a person who ignores due process of law and enacts his or her own form of justice when they deem the response of the authorities to be insufficient. I’m not talking about justice. What I’m talking about is self-defense! And the law is very clear that we may…legally…take reasonable steps to protect ourselves from harm. I would argue that shredding a fanatical hijacker is a reasonable action.

But the hijackers had…sharp box cutters! Translation: someone could get hurt if we don’t do what they said! First, a lot of people got dead anyway. Second, as one who has occasionally been hasty in cutting up slabs of cardboard for the recycling, I’ve given myself some nasty cuts with box cutters. You betcha they can cut. And, yes those cuts hurt. But even if wielded by a burly graduate of the Al Qaeda School for Mischief who is waving it around like a Benihana chef, a box cutter’s blade still only an inch long. Two or three determined people who are willing to risk a nasty – but in all likelihood non-lethal – laceration could have tackled him – allowing the rest to finish him off.

How brutal is that? After all we’re not animals. We don’t act like that? Evidently all that is quite true, because the brutal animals who hijacked the planes did so brazenly and without apparent hesitation. And when the horrible fates of the other flights became apparent to the passengers of Flight 93, they were able to overcome their civility. They didn’t save themselves, but they prevented an even greater tragedy.

Don’t get me wrong. I love living in a society where one feels comfortable going out on the street without fearing passersby. That’s one of the graces of civilization: that for the most part violence is abnormal. One of the liabilities of civilization is that we become accustomed to personal safety as being the norm, and some of us even go so far to disparage the very concept of force and even heroism. The pacifist attitude being, "what can’t be solved if we’re only willing to sit down and talk?" Or, "Well, even if violence comes, I won't tarnish my karma by taking part."

It’s been over 35 years since I was a Sky Marshal and I still can’t board a flight without scoping out my fellow passengers. However, these days I’m a lot older, my reflexes are slower, and my joints are stiffer. I don’t harbor any fantasies that I’m any more capable than the next individual of single-handedly thwarting an in-flight hijacking, but I can tell you that I’m willing to die trying – especially if I’m going to die anyway. If there were a dozen like me on every flight – ordinary citizens who are unwilling to be intimidated by box cutter-wielding fanatics – we wouldn’t need to fear skyjackings.

© Stephen Rustad, 2008