Feeling Overly Secure
Updated: Aug 15
'E pluribus unum' has been the de facto American motto since our country's earliest days. That phrase encapsulates the dream of molding millions of voices (from disparate regions) into one United States. There's a strength in it: like the wallop of a closed fist when compared to a splayed-finger slap.
Sadly, that lofty goal has in many ways been turned on its head. Many out of one ('ex uno, multis' in Latin) has become far too commonplace in Washington. We now live in an undemocratic time of mandated bureaucratic templates being applied indiscriminately across the entire landscape... often ushered in as a reaction to a single event.
Perhaps the most obvious example of this phenomenon can be found at our nation's airport terminals. Come fly with me thru sixty years of history that turned an unrestricted industry into one of the most regulated things on the planet. By the time we reach our destination, I contend you'll at least ponder why a handful of incidents have led to never-ending restrictions for all.
It's Gotta Be The Shoes
Before we fully rewind the clock, we have to start with the shoes. Specifically, the hightops worn by Richard Reid. Because of the actions of this one man on one flight in December of 2001, more than two million people per day are forced to remove their footwear at TSA checkpoints.
This has been going on for two decades with no sign of it letting up. Don't you ever wonder why?
[If so, do you also contemplate how it differs from what the one man known as the "Underwear Bomber" did? Shouldn't the same principles apply -- in the name of safety? Or is removing intimate garments obviously a bridge too far?]
Outside of very infrequent chatter 99.9% of us are not privy to, there hasn't been another loafer threat since Reid's. Is that because of the abundance of caution related to shoe removal? It's impossible to say; but no one seems brave enough to challenge the new status quo. Can't one Congressperson lock in a sunset date for this policy, given the technology that makes it obsolete?
I readily admit it's not a big deal to take off you shoes. Or to carry smaller toiletries. Or to pay a little extra for a drink on the other side of the security perimeter. But, like so many ideas in our world today, what appeared to be temporary solutions became permanently entrenched. Worse yet, the list of constraints grows over time with each periodic update to the things we cannot do.
It's the reason the process of getting to your airplane in the 2020s in no way resembles the easy experience that existed at the start of this millennium. But even that pales in comparison to the absolute freedom our grandparents had before the 1960s...
Boy, That's A Lot Of Coincidences
During the first 35 years of commercial air travel in the United States -- from the spring of 1926 thru the early months of the JFK presidency -- airports had zero security precautions. People could literally walk from the street to the runway without the slightest inconvenience. That all changed on May Day, 1961, when National Airlines Flight 337 became the first hijacking in American history. Over the next three months, three more acts of air piracy occurred over US soil. It's that final plane that was the impetus for this article... so let's focus on that one.
Earlier this year, on a whim, I visited the National Border Patrol Museum in El Paso. While there, I read a wall panel titled "The First Sky Marshals" which detailed the fourth hijacking -- that of Continental Airlines Flight 54. At the time I found it noteworthy that the August event went down in El Paso, home base for southern border governmental operations, and that the hero, Leonard Gilman, was a Border Patrol associate deputy regional commissioner who just so happened to be on the plane. Little did I know that these coincidences were but the tip of the iceberg.
I'd be remiss not to start by mentioning the barbaric protocols carried out by the Border Patrol before 1961, particularly in that city. For decades, immigrants were forced to endure some of the most horrific indignities imaginable, from bathing in gasoline to wearing clothes poisoned with Zyklon B. So, it's not crazy to surmise that a fraction of USBP agents in the early '60s were less-than-honorable folks.
According to media reports I later researched, a career criminal and his teenage son boarded the aircraft in Phoenix, before eventually storming the cockpit midflight and demanding to be flown to Cuba, via Mexico. Supposedly, the pilot was able to convince them to proceed to El Paso in order to refuel. After hours of heated negotiations on the tarmac, Agent Gilman (who not only persuaded the perpetrators to let most of the passengers go but then volunteered to be one of four Cuba-bound hostages) punched and subdued the older culprit to bring the ordeal to an end.
It gets weirder. The pilot, a red-blooded South Dakotan, had long ago etched his name in world history books as the first man behind the controls of a hijacked plane. In Peru. During this period. And what was his rebel captors' goal? To drop revolutionary leaflets. Hmm... all that has to at least make you reckon if he was moonlighting for Pan Am in service of a more covert day job.
Then there's the fate of the El Paso plane itself. It was blown up over Missouri under a year later. While I don't want to speculate if shadowy elements deemed it a loose end that needed tying, I did find one fascinating detail when reading up on the tragedy. Namely, the identity of the lead investigator assigned to that crash: Mark Felt, otherwise known as Watergate's Deep Throat. Keep that in the back of your head.
Now what if I told you that the morning this story hit the front page of the New York Times (8/4/61) fell on the same day the Senate had scheduled a hearing with FAA chief Najeeb Halaby to discuss air safety. I bet that talking point made for some pretty compelling testimony. In fact, I know it did; because, within a week, President Kennedy acquiesced... giving the command to put the first sky marshals in the air. And who constituted the initial wave of recruits? Border Patrol officers.
Was it a perfect storm of luck that made all of those events play out that way? Or was there an agenda? Before you accuse me of being a reckless tin foil hat wearer, don't forget that the JFK era is famous for the sheer number of devious government conspiracies that have been proven to be unequivocally true. Two that immediately spring to mind: Operation Northwoods (1962), where our own military leaders suggested DC/FL false flag bombings to gin up support for an attack on Cuba, and the fake Gulf of Tonkin incident (1964) that directly led to a full-fledged Vietnam War.
[Sidebar: did you know that the man with the earliest domestic fingerprints on Tonkin was none other than Daniel Ellsberg? On his first official day of working as a Pentagon employee! You know -- the guy who is celebrated for his roles in connection with both Vietnam and Watergate. I just learned that. For those keeping track at home, that's now three key Watergate figures I've found murky scoops on that have been totally glossed over by the establishment. I might have to square those dots with the sheer ineptitude of these guys in a future editorial.]
Can't Stop, Won't Stop
On its face, it is hard to argue against having police protection in the clouds. But, when viewed through the lens of it being the first domino to fall, it should give one pause. On top of that, it didn't make things better. The next ten years saw well over a hundred incidents in this country alone; prompting one author to label it the "golden age of hijacking." It was such a weird epoch that Time magazine wrote an irreverent hijacking advice column, complete with Cuban hotel tips!
In November of 1972, Southern Airlines Flight 49 launched the United States into the next era of airport security. Physical screening became universal. By the following year, the law of the land began to compel metal detector and x-ray machine use... despite a Supreme Court ruling that it would have violated the spirit of the Fourth Amendment, if not for technicalities and workarounds.
From then thru the end of the century, the only major revision involved a 1988 expansion of the baggage search protocol to have it apply to checked luggage as well. [Stemming from another catastrophe -- this one international.] Yet, as many of us who were alive in the '80s will tell you, it felt like the scariest time to fly. A quick glance at the list of the worst calamities backs up this notion as do my own distinct childhood memories of evenings spent around the dinner table watching network news segments about mid-air disasters.
Then came 2001. Ever since, it seems like each passing year brings with it further stipulations... stipulations that require infrastructure... infrastructure that has made insiders billions of dollars.
Sticking The Landing
All things considered, jumping through a few extra hoops in order to travel thousands of miles in mere hours isn't that bad. Flying will always be a magnificent privilege -- and privileges usually come with requirements. Still, that doesn't mean we, as citizens, should roll over and let the least defendable security provisos continue forever. Especially the ones with curious backstories...
Note: the post above may contain commentary reflecting the author's opinion.
[Editor's note: The DC Equalizer fully supports the overwhelming majority of women and men working in the modern US Border Patrol.]