One of the results of the attacks on September 11 was that people began thinking more seriously about ways in which they felt vulnerable. Not surprisingly, one of the first areas to receive scrutiny was air travel. After all, the hijackers showed that passenger planes loaded with thousands of gallons of fuel could, in the hands of suicidal pilots, be turned into weapons of mass destruction. With 670 million passengers traveling each year, airline safety was a critical priority.
"The Security of a Laundromat"
Immediately after learning about the hijacked planes—and not knowing whether other hijackings were planned for that day—President Bush ordered all flights grounded. Before air travel could resume, changes were put in place. Experts hoped the new precautions would lessen the threat of terrorists destroying airports or taking over airplanes. Curbside check-in was banned to eliminate the risk of car bombs, and only ticketed passengers would be able to go to the boarding gates. In addition, random identification checks of pilots and crew would be made, to make certain that those controlling the airplanes were who they claimed to be.
Some of these changes were not directly related to the ways the hijackers gained control of the airplanes on September 11. Instead, they would fill in what experts believed were dangerous gaps in airline security. These new policies would make it more difficult for terrorists to take over planes in the future.
Interestingly, none of these precautions were new ideas; experts had been calling for better security measures for more than ten years. One aviation consultant scoffs that American airports "have the security of a Laundromat." And while the events of September 11 horrified him, he was not surprised that such breaches of security occurred on airplanes. "No airport can be made totally secure," he insists. "But [the attacks] show that the FAA's security programs are lethally worthless. The FAA has blood on its hands."73
Many aviation experts agree, saying that for years, the airline industry had been receiving warnings from a variety of sources that there were problems that could lead to hijackings, bombings, and other terrorist acts. Just weeks before the attacks, a veteran pilot admitted that security was lax. He told one reporter, "It's absurd to think we're safe."74
Before the Plane Takes Off
Many security problems have occurred during passenger check-in at airports. Those going to the gate areas are required to walk through metal detectors while their purses and other carry-ons are x-rayed by a scanner. These devices are operated by airport security personnel, who watch the scanner's screen for items that could be guns, knives, or explosives.
However, breaches at these checkpoints have been all too common. In 1998, FAA agents posing as passengers found that they could carry guns under their belts without guards realizing it. If the alarm on the metal detector sounded, the guards would assume that the passengers' belt buckles had set off the sensor, and they would wave the agents through.
Part of the problem, say aviation consultants, is that the companies who are hired to supply airport security pay very low wages—barely minimum wage. As a result, the level of turnover at security positions is very high. At Boston's Logan Airport, for example, the turnover rate from May 1998 to April 1999 was an astonishing 207 percent for security staff. Not surprisingly, many are inexperienced
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workers, says one writer, "who regularly confess that they can't tell or don't care what the mystery object on the x-ray is."75
Since the attacks of September 11, the list of banned carry-ons was lengthened. Because the terrorists were able to take control of the four airplanes with only knives and box cutters, new restrictions prohibited passengers from carrying anything that could cut—plastic or metal knives, razor blades, corkscrews, and even metal nail files.
For security personnel who had not been consistently able even to spot definite taboos such as hunting knives and guns, the new regulations were even more difficult. In fact, just a few days after the attacks, a Northwest Airlines flight crew member walked a knife and a corkscrew through a security checkpoint in the Phoenix, Arizona, airport—just to demonstrate how little security screening of passengers had changed. "Clearly," admitted one airport representative, "we have to make some adjustments to tighten things up. We aren't there yet."76
A Perfect Record in Airline Safety
If the United States wants a model for an airline security plan that really works, officials should take a look at Israel's. No flight out of Ben Gurion Airport, near Tel Aviv, has ever been hijacked. However, as reporter Lisa Beyer explains in "Is This What We Really Want?" the process is long and unsettling, even for the innocent traveler.
"How do the Israelis do it? For one thing, El Al [the national airline] puts at least one armed, plainclothes sky marshal on all its flights. One such agent foiled a hijack attempt over Holland in 1970. During El Al flights, the cockpit door, made of reinforced steel strong enough to repel fire from a handgun, remains locked.
On the ground, the Israelis not only use the standard metal detectors and x-ray machines but also lean on teams of young agents, dressed in blue slacks and white shirts, who interrogate, to varying degrees, every passenger departing Ben Gurion and, in airports abroad, anyone flying El Al. The questions can include:' When did you book this flight?' 'Who paid for the ticket?' 'Why are you traveling?' 'Whom did you meet while in Israel?' Business travelers are asked for documents proving they actually are pursuing a particular deal. Journalists are asked to reveal the stories they are going to cover. One agent will ask questions for a while, then a second will ask many of the same. The two will compare notes, and one or the other will ask a third batch of questions. This process often takes 20 minutes; it can take two hours.
The idea is to turn up inconsistencies in a terrorist's made-up story … and also expose individuals who may be unknowing accomplices. In 1986 El Al security at London's Heathrow airport discovered a bomb sewn into the suitcase of an unwitting Irish woman after she revealed that she had had a romance with a Jordanian, who had bought her the bag."
"Maybe That's Not So Bad!"
In addition to armed guards who were put to work after September 11, many of the one
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hundred large airports in the United States have explosives-sniffing dogs on patrol as well. Airports have also been urged to do more thorough searches of passengers about to board their flights—having guards routinely frisk passengers for weapons that may have been missed by a scanner, for instance.
However, people in the airline industry worry because such extensive searches and scans will take more time. Passengers would be inconvenienced by having to arrive at the airport even earlier so that they can wait in line to be searched and questioned. Some wondered if Americans—used to many freedoms—would resent not only the delays but also the invasive nature of such searches. "It's like someone looking through your shopping bags when you're leaving a store, making sure you didn't shoplift," says one woman. "I think that's invasive. It's really treating everyone as a criminal. I know people might put up with it for a month or so at the airports, but I don't think people will be patient for long."77
But many passengers say they feel far more secure with the extra precautions. They do not mind waiting in line, because they feel that the airlines are looking out for their safety. "I don't care about frisking and baggage checks and my so-called rights being potentially violated," one business executive maintains. "You go to some places and see guys in flak jackets holding machine guns, and you think, 'Whoa, this is scary.' Now you think, 'Whoa, maybe that's not so bad!'"78
Too Many People
Another potential security problem is the number of people in and around the airplane before it takes off. Luggage handlers, mechanics, cleaners, fuelers, and food service personnel all have access to each plane. By law, all of these individuals are supposed to have had background checks, but because of the time and effort required by their various employers, only a small fraction of the people have actually been checked.
This can be as much of a problem, say experts, as a passenger with a weapon. "It's pointless," says one researcher, "to keep a terrorist from carrying aboard a gun if the catering-truck driver can stow one among the beef stews."79
But keeping a plane on the tarmac secure has been a difficult task, and one that security experts have been warning airports about for years. In 1999, for example, the Department of Transportation conducted field tests at some of the nation's largest airports and discovered a number of major security problems that were particularly disturbing.
They sent agents into airports without proper identification and found that they were able to enter off-limits areas in 117 out of 173 tries (a success rate of 68 percent) and were able to board airplanes unchallenged. These agents walked though checkpoints or card-access doors behind unsuspecting airport workers and even drove cars through unguarded gates marked Airplane Personnel Only.
The most critical step, say experts, is a massive effort to comply with laws that already exist, such as criminal background checks on everyone who comes into contact with an airplane. Such checks would encompass not only police databases, but also those on which global intelligence groups post names of suspected terrorists.
In addition, employee identification badges must be updated, so that misplaced or stolen badges will be useless. Some have proposed that U.S. airports should work toward fingerprint-generated security gates, to make it impossible for a terrorist to disguise himself as an airline worker.
The fact that at least some of the hijackers of September 11 bought tickets under their own names prompted a great amount of criticism—not only for the airlines but also for the FBI, who admitted having some of the names on their "watch list."(The list includes names of people suspected of being involved in terrorist groups that have targeted the United States).
This was more than frustrating for John Michael Loh, a retired air force general. Loh was part of a panel of experts that made strong recommendations to the FAA back in 1996 about keeping the airlines and airports secure. According to Loh, the panel insisted that airline safety be equated with national security. One of their first recommendations was strong communication among agencies such as the FBI, the FAA, and the CIA with airports and airline security.
If investigators share information about potential terrorists with the airlines, airline personnel would know immediately if a person on that list buys a ticket, and airport security could alert the FBI immediately. FBI agents could provide airlines not only with names of suspected terrorists, but also with photographs and possible aliases.
The panel also recommended profiling of passengers—a system of taking into account a whole series of variables with the goal of red-flagging someone for closer scrutiny by investigators. One security expert says by collecting and storing more information about people purchasing airline tickets, airlines can avoid more terrorist attacks. "You could then look at a passenger manifest," he explains, "and see that you have a high number of Middle Eastern Muslims. With flight training. Who very rarely fly. You'd see this is anomalous. You wouldn't pull them off, but you'd put an extra marshal onboard."80
One of the antiterrorism tools likely to be used more often by airline security is profiling—looking more suspiciously at passengers of Middle Eastern ethnicity. In his Star-Tribune editorial, Matthew Miller relates how fear of flying since September 11 has resulted in his having conflicting feelings about profiling and fairness.
"On the ground in Minneapolis, after taking our seats, I craned my neck to scrutinize every passenger. I must have looked quite intent, because the flight attendant came right over.
'Can I help you?' she asked. 'What are you looking for?'
I didn't hesitate or hide it. 'I'm looking for Arabs,' I said.
I know it sounds awful, I added defensively, but this is real life. She nodded sympathetically.
'Our security people have been over the manifest three times,' she said. 'We're very comfortable that we're OK.'
I looked in the direction of two 20-something males with dark complexions who appeared to be traveling without families.
'What about them?' I asked.
'They're Mexicans,' she said instantly.
I felt terrible afterward—confused and ashamed, but also determined. All I cared about was that my daughter and I were safe.
In the days since, we've heard many stories about Arabs being taken off flights at the request of fearful flyers and crews. I understand these fears, not least because we see fresh stories daily about airline security—amazingly—still being lax.
Maybe you've experienced my emotional split personality. Part of me feels that if, God forbid, another act of terrorism occurs and Arabs are the perpetrators, the authorities will be more than justified in applying serious new levels of scrutiny to Arabs in the United States.… Yet part of me feels heartsick that things could come to this pass.… And so I wondered: If more attacks gave our government little choice but to profile aggressively, could there be a way to acknowledge the injustice for the 99.9 percent of the 3.5 million Arab-Americans who might feel humiliated and wronged by it?"
But many object to the invasion of privacy that such information gathering involves. They say, too, that civil liberties will be curtailed—that certain groups will be targeted simply because of their religion or ethnic background. Says one Stanford University scholar, "I think it would be a tragic irony if [in the name of security] we gave up the very freedoms we are trying to protect as a nation. It would be the ultimate victory for terrorists if they succeed in transforming our society from free and open to closed and paranoid."81
"Wrestle Him to the Floor and Keep Him There"
But what if a terrorist is able to fool the security guards and machines and ticket takers' computers, and gets on an airplane? Measures are already being taken so that even a suicidal terrorist would be unable to turn an airplane into a guided missile. One immediate change is the addition of extra sky marshals—armed law enforcement officers. Sky marshals, dressed in plain clothes, have been used on random flights for decades, but far more are now needed than the thirty-eight or forty that had been on the job before September 11.
It is clear, too, that it was far too easy for terrorists to gain access to the controls of the planes, so airlines began working on reinforcing cockpit doors of airplanes. Using deadbolts and Kevlar, the material used to make bullet-proof vests, airlines will make the cockpit doors virtually impenetrable.
Perhaps the most practical source of security on airplanes are the passengers themselves. The heroism that was demonstrated by several passengers on Flight 93 provided a model that many officials admit could make terrorism far less of a threat. A pilot on a flight from Washington, D.C. to Denver just a few days after the attacks reminded passengers that there were some things they themselves could do if someone among them threatened to hijack the plane:
Every one of you should stand up and immediately throw things at the person—pillows, books, magazines, eyeglasses, shoes, anything that will throw him off balance. Most important: get a blanket over him, then wrestle him to the floor and keep him there. We'll land the plane at the nearest airport, and the authorities will take it from there. Remember,… there will be one of him and maybe a few confederates, but there are 200 of you. You can overwhelm them.82
But while keeping air travel secure is a high priority, it is not the only aspect of terrorism that raises concerns. Even before the attacks of September 11, defense officials, medical experts, and others had worked out a list of "what ifs." What if terrorists had weapons of mass destruction, such as a nuclear device? What if terrorists used chemical or biological weapons? What if they gained access to a city's water supply or a food plant?
While the thought of one of these events occurring is frightening, considering such scenarios is important. For government officials trying to prevent terrorists from harming Americans, such hard questions point out ways in which the United States is vulnerable. "A central tenet of counterterrorism," explains one researcher, "is that, to defend yourself, you must identify the targets that need defending."83
One security worry has to do with the intentional spread of a dangerous disease or chemical. In 1995 a Japanese terrorist cult released sarin, an odorless, colorless gas that affects the nervous system, on a subway platform in Tokyo. Twelve people died by breathing the gas, although the death toll could have been much higher. The idea that such a substance could be so easily and anonymously set off in a crowd was frightening to many people.
However, chemical weapons are expensive to produce—especially in the large amounts needed to kill a lot of people. Says one chemical weapons expert, "Any bozo can make a chemical agent in a beaker, but producing tons and tons is difficult."84 More of a concern, say terrorism strategists, is germ warfare—the introduction of disease into a population.
Disease control experts say that there are several possibilities, but the two most likely to be used by terrorists would be smallpox and anthrax. Smallpox, a virus that had been eradicated from developed countries before the 1970s, is highly contagious, and experts say it could spread through a large city in a few days, killing tens of thousands. Because smallpox has not been seen in the United States for decades, very few people today are immunized. An outbreak would be deadly, say doctors, because there is not enough of the vaccine currently available to protect every American.
Anthrax, though not contagious, is a disease caused by bacteria, and when inhaled, kills 90 percent of its victims. Just weeks after the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, cases of anthrax began showing up—first in Florida, then in New York, Washington, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Anonymous letters containing spores of the germ arrived in a number of locations—from the mail room of a tabloid publisher to the offices of a U.S. senator, a network news anchor, and that of a hospital worker. Some postal employees and others who touched the letters got skin anthrax, an easily treatable form of the disease. However, others inadvertently inhaled the dustlike spores and were infected with a more deadly form of anthrax, which proved fatal.
As of March 2002, no one could say with certainty who was responsible for the spread of the anthrax germs—or even if the instances of anthrax were related to the September 11 tragedy. However, it was clear that the germ had been weaponized—that is, some person or group had changed the anthrax spores into a form that would be more likely to infect people.
Doctors called for increased production of antibiotics that would treat anthrax, and post offices in targeted areas began using irradiation machinery to kill any spores in the mail. The machines, said Postmaster General John Potter, would cost about $2.5 billion. "This new technology is not cheap," he admitted, "but we are committed to spending what it takes to make the mail safe."85
What Are the Targets?
An important part of national security after September 11 was to take another look at public places that might be targets for future terrorist attacks. Anywhere in which thousands of people would gather at one time was a possibility, and there were many.
Once both major league baseball and the National Football League had resumed their schedules after approximately a week's delay, fans returned to a slightly different type of stadium. More security personnel were checking purses and backpacks as people entered. Some stadiums had already installed metal detectors at the gates. Airplanes were not permitted to fly overhead, at least temporarily; any aircraft violating the rule would be intercepted or shot down by patrolling air force jets.
Many outdoor theme parks, such as Disneyland and Sea World, stepped up security in a similar fashion. Security staff paid more attention to camera cases, diaper bags, and other carrying cases, and additional uniformed police were on patrol. Because the many families who visit such parks are so spread out—more, say, than spectators in a stadium are—experts say that an attack in these places would have little chance of hurting great numbers of people.
Even if airplanes are not used to topple skyscrapers, such buildings could still be likely targets for a terrorist attack. Since 1995 when the federal building in Oklahoma City was destroyed by a truck packed with explosives, many buildings around the United States installed concrete barricades to keep vehicles away. However, such barricades are not an option for many buildings because of their location in crowded downtown areas.
For those buildings, engineers recommend replacing glass windows with laminated glass. The latter is less apt to splinter in a bomb explosion than regular glass. In addition, many of the newest tall buildings are being built with tiny sensors embedded in the concrete frames, which would trigger an alarm if the building's beams were so seriously damaged that the building could collapse. That way, workers and emergency personnel would know they had to evacuate.
Skyscrapers' ventilation systems could be a problem, too. If a terrorist released anthrax or a virus such as smallpox into a vent, it could circulate throughout the building. However, filters equipped with special devices that can disinfect the air with ultra-violet light have been developed. These filters can screen out most toxins, including anthrax and smallpox. Engineers say it is a good idea for any building maintenance staff to make sure their ventilation systems are secure and up-to-date.
Viruses of another sort are a concern to terrorism experts, too—those that can destroy a computer's hard drive. Such viruses are not merely an inconvenience, for critically important systems run on computer networks: telephone networks, airport security, the 911 system, and the banking system, to name just a few.
Most of these systems and networks have installed various forms of protection against such attacks, making it difficult for a computer terrorist to hack into a system of such importance. However, conducting its own tests in 1997, the National Security Agency had some of its best agents try to get into such systems, with worrisome results. Without being specific about which programs the agents were able to break into, one Pentagon spokesman admitted, "We learned that hackers could have a dramatic impact on the nation's infrastructure, including the power grid [the network of power plants throughout the eastern part of the United States and Canada]."86
Since that time, much has been done to safeguard those systems. The concerns that Y2K would result in massive computer problems turned out to be a positive thing, for it forced experts to carefully examine computer networks and the protections they require. Even so, the attacks of September 11 made many computer technicians uneasy. Says one computer security researcher, "Since September 11, I can confirm that there's been a lot of action to make sure [key routes on the networks] are properly maintained."87
"I Just Want It All to Go Away"
As the recovery work at Ground Zero, at the Pentagon, and that of the medical examiners attempting to identify remains of the dead continued after the attacks, the nation was forced to move on. Critical aftershocks of the attacks, such as the war against terrorists in Afghanistan and the mounting anxiety over the spread of anthrax, occupied much of the government's attention. Various agencies and departments at national, state, and local levels were hard at work—either in preventing future threats or in dealing with crises resulting from the attacks of September 11.
While government departments and agencies were involved in those crucial jobs, the American people were facing different sorts of crises on a more personal level. "It's like there's the 'me' at work, and the 'me' the minute I walk out of the hospital," says Mickey, an emergency medical worker who has been taking a crash course on dealing with a smallpox outbreak. "When I'm at work, I'm dealing with stuff that might happen, and I feel like, okay, I'm contributing a little bit.
"But then, I leave, I get in my car, and I feel like a different person. I'm nervous, I'm edgy, I don't know. I know a lot of guys that are like me—it's the way we feel since September 11. I'm walking around in a fog. I think if I had a wish, I'd wish we could go back to September 10 and catch these guys before they got on their damned planes. I just want it all to go away; I want everything to be normal again."88
But as many Americans struggled with a range of emotions that they had not felt before, the hope of getting their lives back to normal in the weeks afterward seemed more impossible every day. Perhaps, as some suggested, the events of September 11 were life-changing—not just for the victims and their families, but for all Americans.