We don't know much about the shooting at Los Angeles International Airport just yet, but it has clearly jangled our collective nerves, dredging up the fear and shock and pain of 9/11 -- the wellspring of our modern airport security process -- reminding us that more than a decade later, flying is still a fraught experience.
For those of us who were working for United or American, that day in 2001 changed everything. When we finally got back onboard, our workplace now included air marshals, armed pilots, martial arts lessons, tasers, fortified cockpit doors, and a new focus on vigilance, not warmth and customer service. "Welcome aboard" was less a greeting and more an opportunity to size you up.
So, reports of today's airport shooting raise new fears about weaknesses in this system. Is it possible that the gunman who shot and killed one TSA officer and injured two of his colleagues may have made it through LAX security with a high-powered rifle? (As of this writing, that is not yet clear.)
And is it time to start arming Transportation Security Administration officials?
I can understand the urge to react, to grasp at anything that might protect travelers. I too want air travel to be safe; hell, my husband is a pilot. But arming screeners at checkpoints well away from the airfield wouldn't be just another of the many precautions the airlines have taken to avert large-scale terrorism. It would simply be about protecting people from something that is everywhere in America: gun violence -- yes, at airports, and also at schools, at movie theaters, and malls.
If you're the kind of person who thinks that every teacher and hall monitor and mall cop and cinema usher should be armed, then you'll probably feel safer if we give guns to TSA officers. And maybe flight attendants and customer service reps and baggage handlers. And probably bus drivers and ballpark ticket takers, and hospital staff.
September 11, 2001, still hurts, but most of our public killings have been at the hands of angry or disturbed co-workers, students, neighbors, family members -- not terrorists.
Do you really want to start handing out guns to the people you work with?
Probably not if you work for an airline where people are often underpaid, overworked, sometimes inhumanely exhausted and locked, perennially, in famously contentious relationships with management.
Even before 9/11, it made me nervous that as airline workers, we skipped security entirely, simply hopping off the employee bus and entering a back door, bags and bodies unscreened. I feared that the next air disaster would be caused by a colleague with a bone to pick. Of course, I was wrong, and thankfully employees' bags are now screened, but giving guns to airline and airport workers is still a disquieting idea.
I was never a fan of armed pilots, even in the nightmarish days after 9/11. Another flight attendant might have felt reassured but, when I once walked into the cockpit of a 757 to find a pilot with a gun resting on his lap, I was most decidedly rattled. I hadn't met the guy before and had no reason to distrust him, but even the thought of an accident was enough to make me question my safety (turbulence anyone?).
And a couple of chilling mishaps -- an inadvertent discharge in the cockpit of a US Airways plane and an incident where a JetBlue pilot lost his gun in an airport -- demonstrate the potential dangers of even a best-case-scenario arming of the nation's nearly 50,000 TSA agents.
Unquestionably, terrorism is a real concern for airlines, but like it or not, as Americans, we have also have to worry just as much about angry neighbors with guns.
To fight our justified fear, some will undoubtedly push for more guns and others for fewer. One thing is for certain -- we will continually be forced to debate this. I only hope that we can find some common ground before the next reminder.
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