The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 resulted in more than lives lost and damage done; they changed the rules about how aircraft crews and passengers should react to hijackings. Gone is the assumption that those who seize aircraft will free their hostages after negotiations. Fighting back is the survival tip of the day - “let's roll” is its watchword.
With no more passivity in the friendly skies, the only real argument concerning the new era of combative defense is about the details. This week the Air Line Pilots Association went to Congress to ask that pilots be allowed to carry firearms - which they are currently forbidden from doing. The union says the idea is overwhelmingly supported by the 67,000 pilots it represents.
Fortunately, however, President Bush's proposals for airport security announced yesterday do not include arming pilots.
The union wants a program that would be strictly voluntary. Those who wish to be armed would undergo background screening, psychological evaluation, and firearms training - by the FBI, the union hopes.
Union President Capt. Duane Woerth told the House Transportation aviation subcommittee that the bullets issued to pilots - in order to minimize damage to aircraft - would be of a type to disintegrate on impact. Stun guns would also be part of the plan.
The pilots can't be blamed for feeling insecure in light of the murderous events aboard the four hijacked jets. Even those - such as this newspaper - who believe that firearms in American life are more bane than blessing will be sympathetic to the pilots' plea. It's true that police officers are not the only professionals who have a need to carry firearms in the line of duty.
Nevertheless, the pilots' proposal is of a type in American society: Violence in schools? Arm the teachers. Concerned about street violence? Let everyone carry a concealable weapon.
The problem with making society a free-fire zone is that such action invites other dangers. Not everybody has the nerve or the make-up to start shooting effectively at threatening people. A stray shot in the confines of an aircraft, even with a disintegrating bullet, poses great danger.
The logic is also an invitation to a slippery slope. If pilots are armed, what about flight attendants? What about passengers? To our mind, the job of security is best left to professional sky marshals, as President Bush proposed yesterday. Even allowing for the fact that many pilots have a military background, and would be comfortable handling weapons, their primary responsibility is flying the aircraft.
Before arming pilots, we would prefer to see their cockpits made more secure and airport security overseen - if not run - by the federal government following strict national standards. Those steps also are part of the President's proposal. As a last resort, perhaps armed pilots could be a back-up to sky marshals, but their role as deputies ought to be carefully measured.
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