Columbine and Airport Security

On the 10th anniversary of Columbine, I’ve been reading Dave Cullen’s excellent book on the subject and having some insights as related to airport security.

First, my personal connection to Columbine was as a Jefferson County public information officer for the Jeffco Airport at the time. All available PIO’s were sent to the site the following day to assist with the barrage of media. I claim no inside knowledge by the way, nor no personal connection – I merely staffed the phones in the local library (the Jefferson County library not the schools’), for a few hours and walked around the media circus tent before heading back to the airport.

Second, Cullen’s book has managed to pull the veil off a lot of the errors and speculation that surrounded the tragedy and through a rudimentary analysis, I came up with a few insights I’d like to share, strictly as it relates to security.

The students who committed this act were 18 (Eric Harris) and 17 (Dylan Klebold) respectively. They were not trained by foreign operatives (i.e. al Qaeda), nor were they trained by the U.S. military (i.e. Timothy McVeigh). However, they planned an exectued an attack that included several chilling elements. They first figured out how to build improvised explosive devices (IED’s), by using several common resources, the Internet and books such as the Anarchist’s Cookbook – which I can buy without penalty or even a second glance at a bookstore 15 minutes from my house. 

They then placed the devices in areas that they believed would have caused structural failure. Had they a better understanding of how electricity worked as related to detonating their devices, and had one of the largest propane bombs detonated, they could likely have dropped sections of the second floor of the high school directly onto the cafeteria, causing an estimated 400 deaths – more than were killed in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. 

Additionally, they placed bombs into their own vehicles, which were parked intentionally near areas they believed first responders would eventually be bringing the wounded. They were not even 19 years old, without military training, and understood the concept of attacking first responders with secondary devices.

Once their bombs were placed, they positioned themselves at right angles to the primary exit doors from the school. This is a standard military tactic to create an interlocking field of fire – a concept taught to every Infantryman and Marine in Basic Training. Again, they did all this without formal training of any kind. According to a CNN report, the boys even envisioned loading up a commercial airplane with bombs and flying it into a building in New York City. All this from an 18 and 17 year old.

Where am I going with this? Well, think of it this way. If two kids were able to figure out this much on their own, think what a more sophisticated operation carried out with training, efficiency and maturity could do, without much planning or resources needed. One of the biggest challenges in aviation security, or any security for that matter, is often the security agents, law enforcement, policy makers, i.e. the good guys, do not think like the bad guys. We cannot imagine some of the nightmare scenarios that may be carried out – we do not share their same values. When we need extra money, we stop at an ATM. When they need extra money, they rob a 7-11 with just about as much emotional detachment.

Former Delta Force commander Peter Blaber wrote in his book, The Men, the Mission and Me (Berkley, 2009): “How many of us ever sat around thinking, ‘Wouldn’t a great way to get attention and kill innocent people be to hijack a bunch of planes filled with fuel and fly them into buildings?’ We have very little in common with the kind of person…it’s not that we don’t have the mental capacity to imagine something like that; it’s actually pretty simple. Rather, we have boundaries called values that prevent us from thinking that way. Psychotic terrorists do not.” (p. 146)

Since most of us do not think that way, no matter how hard we may try so that we can develop appropriate defenses, we must study the people who do think that way. Blaber says that to recognize and connect the dots and make the unimaginable imaginable, we need “contact with and input from people who think the same way terrorists do.” As difficult as it has been to read this book, I encourage you to read books and information written by and about your adversary’s, in order to understand their values and way of thinking so that you may develop the appropriate defenses. My other key point is that an attack on aviation does not have to come from a sophisticated domestic or international terrorist group. When I was the airport manager at Jeffco, we received a threat from a 16-year-old kid who was going to steal a small plane and crash it into a local airport because his parents would not let him take flight lessons. Okay, don’t follow the logic path too far there, but consider that threats can come from any angle and any group. 

And speaking of the unimaginable, this month’s issue of Aviation Security International magazine is reporting an incident in February in New Delhi, India where a man threatened to hijack an aircraft holding infected needles with sedatives. Hmm, I’ve been in this industry 20 years and had not thought of that approach – did you?

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3 Responses to Columbine and Airport Security

  1. This article has identified an exceptional suggestion to the general public; knowledge is a very constructive defense mechanism for our Nation during the ongoing battle with terrorism. Unless we are process plots and ideals as a terrorist would, it is highly unlikely that airport security personnel will be able to eliminate every single threats made against the traveling public. If two undereducated adolescents could design an entire man slaughter without training, it only indicates that their brains operate and process thoughts differently due to upbringing, psychological imbalance, religion, culture, etc. We could not imagine any positive benefits, (that the terrorist saw) that would emerge from an attack as severe as 9/11, or the multiple suicide bombings. If we were able to understand why this horrific violence occurs, we might be able to predict further actions, and in turn save more innocent people.

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