We’re heard the term before – suicide-by-cop. This is where someone threatens the police with a gun to get the police to kill the individual. On February 18, we witnessed suicide-by-small-plane.
We did not witness a terrorist attack. We barely witnessed an attack on a government building. Had Stack intended on causing mass casualties, he certainly did not pick an effective tool for the job.
He did manage to start a pretty good fire and cause damage to the structure, but a good question to ask here is, what does this say about general aviation security? People throughout the country are asking themselves if they should be worried about threats from small aircraft. Will they become a tool for terrorist attacks?
Let’s answer that by comparing the goals of terrorism and whether they match up with what we saw in Austin?
1. Mass casualties… no.
2. Destruction to an element of the infrastructure, or symbolic or economic target… not really. He hit the IRS building and while it caught fire, this isn’t a symbolic target like the Statue of Liberty, nor does it cause great damage to our nation’s infrastructure. If the target had been the Statue of Liberty, or a large office building on Wall Street. . . well, we can fix the Statue, and firefighters and sprinkler systems can put out a fire of the size we saw yesterday. This was not a Boeing 757 jet.
3. Instill fear in the public… depends on how much fear we want to add.
4. Gain widespread media attention…yes. But then again, Hollywood celebs going through rehab manage to do that all the time. We can decide how much attention we want to give to this.
5. Erode our liberties, change our way of life and cause us to mistrust that our government can protect us. This is where the rubber meets the road. We will have to wait and see whether this type of attack would achieve this objective. Fortunately, whether this objective is achieved is up to us, not the bad guys. The ball is back in our court.
Already Representative Michael McCaul, a Republican from Austin who is on the House Homeland Security Committee is saying that small airplane threats are “…weakness we hope terrorists don’t exploit…this has been on the radar of al-Qaeda and others…it can be done and they may attempt to do the same thing…”
However, the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general last year stated that: private aviation “does not present a serious homeland security vulnerability…” a conclusion that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano disputes.
Whether we see further erosions of our civil liberties as a result of this is up to our elected officials. I’ve read numerous DHS IG reports and feel they are very well informed and have a good perspective on this issue, despite what Napolitano or Congressman McCaul feel. I don’t believe there is a plan on the terrorist books to use numerous numbers of small general aviation aircraft in some sort of massive attack on the United States.
Let’s keep this in perspective. A guy who was unhappy with life, took his private plane and committed suicide. While tragic, certainly, this type of attack does not achieve the objectives of terrorism, unless we let it.
So what is the solution?
Most people will not like the solution because it is not a simple fix. Nor does the solution lie primarily in aviation security.
In every one of these incidents, whether they are school shootings, business shootings, or what have you, there are pre-incident indicators. In the coming weeks, information will surely come forth from friends, business associates and possibly family members about the problems Stack was having. The pre-incident indicators will manifest and everyone will start putting the pieces together. Hindsight will become 20/20 and many people will start to wonder why he wasn’t red flagged before.
As I told a reporter today, general aviation security is not new. We were teaching airport operators back in the 1980s and 1990s to watch for signs of aircraft being used in drug smuggling. In fact, I still have my old drug investigators guide — the only thing that’s really changed is the threat. Rather than drug smuggling airport operators, airport employees and tenants need to be trained to recognize suspicious activity. But this may still not stop the next suicide-by-plane, or even a potential attack from a GA airport. Keep in mind that there are many small airports throughout the U.S. that are not regularly staffed with any sort of airport manager. Many of these smaller airports are operated by cities and counties and may have a public works employee assigned to occasionally drop by to make sure things are okay.
So, we get back to pre-incident indicators. Basic workplace violence recognition training just may well be the solution to this “threat.” There are always signs. There are always pre-incident indicators. There are always opportunities to identify the threat ahead of time and report it to authorities.
Is this the 100% perfect solution? No. Of course not. But it’s better than throwing billions of dollars into small aircraft security measures that ultimately are not only ineffective but help fulfill the goals of terrorism.