After 9/11, Americans decided where they would draw the line on public safety.
It wasn’t a conscious decision.
But the reasoning went something like this: We’ll turn airport security primarily over to the government, because that will make it look like we’re doing something, and we’ll beef up passenger screening because that’s where the terrorists exploited our weaknesses to get access to planes.
One other thing: The nation simply didn’t have the money or the means to guard against every possible vulnerability. So we created the Department of Homeland Security, beefed up surveillance techniques and asked the public to be more observant.
Even though the TSA regularly screws up, frisking toddlers while people testing the system get through with guns, this strategy has worked remarkably well.
But every now and then something really strange happens and we start wringing our hands about how the nation should be doing more.
The latest such incident happened this week in St. George, Utah, where a distraught SkyWest Airlines pilot suspected of murdering his girlfriend in Colorado broke through the airport’s perimeter security and tried to make off with a jet.
Brian Hedglin was his name. He didn’t get far before crashing the plane in the parking lot. He then seems to have killed himself with a shot to the head.
This type of thing doesn’t happen every day. I can’t remember anything like it ever happening. But that hasn’t stopped people from using it as an example of why we need tighter security.
Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, for one, called for enhanced security at all airports.
But the kind of radar surveillance that would spot someone trying to get through a fence costs money. Airports would bear the costs, which likely would be passed on through higher landing fees and, ultimately, higher air fares.
And where do you stop? If a small airport in St. George must get such equipment, what about small non-commercial air fields? What’s to stop someone from stealing a Cessna and causing trouble?
For that matter, what’s to stop someone from sabotaging a train or a mass transit system during rush hour, or from shipping a weapon of mass destruction right into a major port on a freighter?
But keeping to the subject of aircraft, what’s to keep an American citizen from taking flying lessons with the sole intent of doing terrorism? A recent AP story said foreign nationals are screened before taking lessons, but not U.S. citizens. That doesn’t happen until they apply for a license – a formality a terrorist wouldn’t need.
One answer to all these questions is good law enforcement. A second answer is that you never can make the nation completely secure from problems.
The St. George incident raises questions. SkyWest, which made the clumsy PR move of painting over its logo on the disabled plane, needs to answer how Hedglin got aboard the plane, despite having his access card disabled, and how he was able to start it up.
But then, the TSA still has to answer as to why it doesn’t do well on random audits.
Let’s not overreact to one odd and extremely rare incident in a small town.