For many years the federal government left the job of securing domestic aviation to an FAA that perceived a conflict of interest in their role of supporting commercial aviation with their duty to secure it. They viewed having to restrict the movements of their client airlines and their passengers too difficult a balancing act for it to manage. To solve the problem, the FAA passed along the security responsibility to the nation’s airport authorities and operators who similarly found it to be an onerous burden they were unwilling to accept. The airport operators in their role of property managers and landlords did what landlords are wont to do with responsibilities that are too burdensome; they passed the security role on to their tenant airlines as a condition of their leases. The tenant airlines wanting nothing to do with a duty that was sure to interfere with their need to quickly board passengers, load baggage and take-off on time, sought and found the least expensive and least intrusive way to fulfill their security duty under their leases, they contracted the responsibility to the lowest bidder. 9/11 brought this charade to an end when the federal government that created it suddenly insisted that it would accept its responsibility for security over an industry that it had regulated in the first place.
Despite the repeated warnings that terrorists were focused on commercial aviation and that American carriers were at the top of the list, our airports and airlines saw little if any movement toward eliminating the kinds of vulnerabilities that allowed nineteen high profile terrorists to board four airliners with weapons and use them to take command of the aircraft. It could be argued successfully, and likely will be in federal court, that but for negligence of security companies, airlines, airport operators, aircraft manufacturers and the FAA, the events of 9/11 would have been prevented.
Protecting the public from acts of terrorism is well within the job description of national governments; but even governments with the best trained and equipped enforcement personnel are too often not up to the job. Despite the willingness of our judicial system to compensate the injured and their families for their losses by allowing lawsuits against companies paid directly or indirectly for transporting air passengers, only the government has a chance at limiting the terrorist events that inflict the injuries; all too often government fails as well.
The day after the suicide bombings at three American based hotels in Amman, Jordan, the topics under discussion in America, home to three of the so far fifty-seven reported killed with twice that numbered injured, is what information did the authorities have of suspected attacks of this kind at these venues? Have Western hotels in Jordan been mentioned in the past as a terrorist target? Have any hotels belonging to the same groups been targets of Islamic terrorists elsewhere in the world? Did the hotels have reasonable security in place against risks of this kind? We appear to be looking for someone to blame other than the terrorists who committed the crimes. While news of filed lawsuits in the United States for negligent lodging security has not yet been heard, it may not be long before we are made aware of such pending litigation. Surely American hotels catering to Western travelers in the Middle East knew or should have known that acts of terrorism were more than reasonably foreseeable; they were even likely. Whatever security precautions were in place were surely inadequate given the successful almost simultaneous explosions at three different locations. Somebody should have to compensate the victims for their losses. If so, who should it be?
Unlike a terrorist caused aviation disaster involving a government regulated moving target, lodgings for the most part have no mandated security regulations. No metal detectors greet visitors entering the lobby; checked baggage is not screened by million dollar explosive detection systems; sworn law enforcement personnel are not assigned to patrol the premises. And while it is true that like common carriers, lodgings have a special relationship to provide for the security of their guests, protection from suicide bombers is not yet a recognized duty of management. Nor are we likely to mandate changes that would impose such a duty on our lodgings whose numbers in the United States are in the tens of thousands as opposed to our 429 commercial airports. Even the federal government is not prepared to secure the nations lodgings; such a duty would certainly be turned over to the States who would in turn assign it to local municipalities who would impose it on owners and operators who would undoubtedly contract out security to private vendors. Even hotels with proprietary security forces would not want the responsibility for acts of terrorism and thus good security would be replaced with the same people who were removed from the airports a few short years ago.
We need to recognize that our nation’s ability to foresee terrorism risks is still more advanced than our ability to prevent them. Even Jordan, with its highly regarded intelligence network that has until now thwarted so many other terrorist attacks, could not interdict these. Conditions in Jordan have changed at a faster pace than the nation’s intelligence capacity has as the result of thousands of Iraqi’s having relocated there coupled with its continued close association with America and its recognition of Israel. Now buildings and vehicles are nightly burned by terrorists in France with similar events taking place in Belgium and Germany. Our Department of State reports daily of acts of terrorism and threatened acts of terrorism from around the world to alert American businesses of the peril they face abroad. Certainly terrorism has become a risk of war for which we do not hold civilians vicariously liable; a rule that seems appropriate for the events in Amman.
The problem of protecting travelers from spontaneous outbursts of terrorism has no ready solution. Travelers must be discrete in selecting lodgings, choosing those in which they are better protected from terrorist activity. Learning about available security at any destination is always a good idea these days, and when traveling abroad it should be mandatory. Participating in the State Department’s advisory programs regarding conditions in foreign countries is another must for international travelers. Unrest abroad is often unassociated with any current conflict in which the United States is directly involved, but being caught in the middle of anybody’s fight is a dangerous place to be. Learning places and activities to avoid when you can, and providing for security when you can’t, is advice also worth considering these days. More than ever before exercising choice about risks worth being exposed to has become the obligation of any traveler moving about in a dangerous world.
Lodging security has made tremendous progress over the past decade since guests at hotels were taking room keys home as souvenirs. Today keys to rooms truly are souvenirs having been replaced by high technology electronic locking systems. Big city hotels are now usually patrolled by trained and equipped security staff’s responding to closed circuit monitoring systems. Hotel management often works in tandem with local and even federal law enforcement agencies raising and lowering the level of security in response to changes in risk levels. Crime is monitored on a community basis and anticipated before it strikes. Hotel staffs are all now involved in security, trained to observe and report risks as soon as discovered. It is true that today staying in a modern lodging you are safer than in your own home.
The issue should not be whether a lodging can be found liable for injuries to a guest caused by an act of terrorism, but whether the lodging, the guest, the community and the nation have done all they could reasonably do to stop terrorist acts from occurring. To be sure there are things that make one target softer than another to the foreseeable risks of crime, and it may be appropriate to have that target sustain its fair share of the liability for losses that might have reasonably been prevented or limited. But until such time as our ability to prevent catches up to our ability to predict, terrorism acts in lodgings need to be addressed by a different standard.