Terrorist hysteria has common sense by the throat. No one wants a sequel to Sept. 11, and it’s only with best intentions that we’ve deployed M-16 toting National Guardsmen to airports nationwide. But Logan Airport wasn’t the target of terrorism on Sept. 11, it was only the vehicle. M-16s would not have changed a thing. With the same well-intended logic that has soldiers in our airports, the troops could be in stadiums, malls, busy streets and anywhere else that might be associated with a terrorist threat. Then America would resemble a military state, and despite the sacrifice of so much of our way of life, we wouldn’t be any safer.
In what scenario could a National Guardsman with an automatic rifle better handle a terrorist threat than law enforcement or well-trained civilian security? Neither the Taliban nor anyone else is going to storm into an airport and open fire—at least, unless they have a penchant for airports, a public shooting there is no more likely than anywhere else. And with or without military personnel around every corner, even the most dim-witted terrorist would never try to hijack a plane by rushing through metal detectors, ready for a footrace or a firefight.
More likely is that future terrorists, like those on Sept. 11, will keep a low profile and will choose weapons that are easy to conceal. They will avoid confrontation at all costs. And, as resourceful as terrorists usually are, they will enlist the help of insiders. But my friends in fatigues will be useless against all of that.
Instead, the military personnel that watched over the Trenton, N.J. airport I used this Thanksgiving only heightened traveler anxiety. With his rifle strap bowing out around his well-trained belly and his glassy gaze groping for something, anything more exciting than the tired scene before him, the soldier probably wanted nothing more than to go back to whatever post he held four months ago.
But he was stuck in Trenton, and his presence meant that a battlefield rifle was orbiting the terminal. Last Thanksgiving I was confident that no one could sneak a fully-loaded five-foot rifle through the metal detectors and into the terminal, but this Thanksgiving he had one slung over his shoulder. And if a grumpy business traveler should hurry through a security checkpoint, I could only wonder whether everyone in the vicinity would have to duck when he pointed his M-16 in threat.
Less extreme and more effective precautions are available to thwart terrorism. Many airports have already implemented comprehensive screenings at security checkpoints—with every carry-on scanned first and then searched by hand. We already have the technology in place for airlines to enter their passenger lists into background checking databases that will flag those with suspected terrorist connections. And it would only be a mild inconvenience if security personnel conducted one last identification check on board the aircraft to ensure that all passengers and crew are supposed to be there.
In other public venues that might attract terrorists—like the Salt Lake City Olympic Winter Games just around the corner—a carefully secured perimeter with metal detectors and bomb-sniffing wands would short-circuit most terrorist plots without trampling on the civil liberties of everyone else in attendance. As has always been the case, the best way to prevent terrorism is a capable intelligence force that can sniff out trouble at an early stage.
President Bush and the media have repeated time and time again that we are at war with terror and will be indefinitely. But our most elusive enemy is not the Taliban or the international network it depends on for support. Our most elusive enemy is our own short-sightedness and the unrelenting anxiety that causes it—a very human anxiety born from months in the crosshairs of merciless predators. Although soldiers with automatic weapons might make us feel less vulnerable to terrorism—even though we aren’t—what’s the point of defeating one lifestyle of fear while we cultivate another?