After delivering a paper on security at domestic airports to the President’s Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism in 1990, I was informally told that, absent a terrorist act against domestic aviation in the United States, an overhaul of our airport security system was not likely. Since that time, and notwithstanding the Gore Commission inquiry after TWA 800, further recommendations to improve airport security have been made and new protocols established. The Pan Am and TWA disasters resulted in the loss of over 500 lives, a number at one time thought to be horrific. With the loss of human life now in the thousands as a result of air terrorism over New York City, Washington, D.C., and outside of Pittsburgh, the time is ripe to ask if we are now ready to secure our domestic aviation facilities.
A finding of civil, criminal, or political liability for failure to protect the lives of American citizen who choose to travel by air will hopefully not be needed for the creation of an effective American aviation security policy. All who depart from a United States airport should have the right to expect that every reasonable effort has been made to safeguard them from the loss of life, limb, and property just suffered by the passengers and crews aboard the four airliners hijacked from three of our highest security airports. The same right to be protected must also be afforded to those on the ground who, in greater number, could forfeit their lives and suffer injuries to themselves and their families.
When the numbing effect of this catastrophe subsides, and the policies and conduct of those responsible for securing domestic airports can be objectively analyzed before the American public, the first order of business must be an examination of how well our airlines, airport authorities, the FAA, and perhaps even the Congress itself have fulfilled their respective duties to provide reasonable protection against the likelihood of foreseeable terrorist acts.
This call for action is not meant as an indictment of the performance of those responsible for aviation security in our country; nor is it a call for litigation or for a conclusion that all which could or should have been done to protect the public was not done. It is, rather, a plea for a public inquiry into how — after two White House Commissions were called to investigate American aviation disasters in which security was at issue and delivered their findings; and after the issuance of extensive recommendations for security implementations by two White House panels; and after numerous executive orders and repeated investigations into the effectiveness of airport security regulations promulgated by the FAA — security was breached. We need to know why and how four commercial airliners could be so easily hijacked, with thousands killed or injured and our democratic institutions put in jeopardy, by a small group of fanatical terrorists.
Reasonable people may yet disagree on how to get the aviation security job done, but notice has been given American aviation that it is both a target and is vulnerable to attack; changes must be made. Some have likened this assault on America to Pearl Harbor; such a comparison is all the more painful. Our losses at the hands of a perfidious enemy nation which employed its air and naval power far from our shores were far less in human life and national pride than we have suffered at the hands of the few freelance terrorists who delivered unimaginable death and destruction with our own airplanes to our greatest cities. We must make every effort to ensure that we are never again as vulnerable to such an attack.