Friday, October 21, 2011

Terror Threat - What Do You Think?

Ever so often, some occurrence in your life leaves you with questions; questions that breed questions. This summer such a thing came my way.

Back in February, I made a decision to hit as many aviation events as I possibly could during the year. Doing my best to coordinate with scheduling for time off, and by making every effort to drop trips (sacrifice work to someone who wanted it), I was able to attend many large and small airshows. It was during one of these, on an otherwise typical day of aviation, when I received a call from a friend.

Sitting in the grass answering a question about flying wires, I excused myself and picked up the phone. Having not even finished the word “Hello”, I was caught off guard when the voice on the other end jumped right in to let me know I really needed to come see what he was up to over in a remote corner of the airport. Doing my best to remember his directions, I then sat out to find him.

Looking forward to seeing whatever crazy project my friend was involved with, you can imagine my surprise when I found him sitting on a picnic table doing nothing but engaging in small talk.

Sensing my curiosity, he then told me, casually, his phone call was intended to lure me away from the more crowded area of the event. The reason for this? There had been a credible terrorist threat against the airshow and, according to him, if I didn’t believe him all I had to do was look at the small control tower. What I saw, with the use of my long camera lens, were soldiers better known as snipers.

Not one of the actual snipers
 Now, quite honestly, while I was straining to see the large caliber rifles placed on high, two things went through my mind; “This is crazy” and “I have great friends.” Later though, I would have questions.

The next day, like every other good American, I had almost forgotten the previous day’s terrorist threat. Then I learned it had been considered serious enough to be escalated to the Governors office along with several other government agencies, and that the “soldiers” were back. That’s when the questions that breed questions entered my mind.

Should the crowd have been told? Were event officials right to keep the secret? And how did I feel about knowing of this threat, when others did not?

The pluses and minuses of informing attendees about a credible terrorist threat vs. not informing them are numerous. And although I’m sure the airshow officials went through them all, ultimately they chose not to inform. What would you do?

If you blurted out an answer, I would caution you rethink it. Making such a decision might initially seem easy but I believe arriving at the best answer to be much harder. Some may say the airshow should be obligated to notify the crowd and that to not do so is negligent. Yet, when you enter such an event, are you not accepting the risk of being part of such a large target and, could you not be considered a bigger target if you were crammed together at an exit trying to leave after having been told of such a threat? The possibilities are endless for both arguments. It is a very tough call.

Every potential plus to notifying attendees comes with a negative. For example, how exactly do you notify a complete airshow crowd? If you blurt it out over the PA system, you risk it sounding like a “take cover” message that causes panic. If you designate people to spread the word you risk taking too long or not getting the message to everyone. And if you post a sign at every vendor’s booth, then you simply risk missing the people on the flight line. So what do you do?

What if you manage to notify everyone? What happens? Do they panic? What if media outlets exploit it to the point people are scared to go to any airshows? Would TSA use it as an excuse to get involved with security? And worse yet, would someone or some insignificant group demand that all attendees of such events be screened by TSA? These are all valid questions.

How about the vendors? Things have been tough in aviation and losing out on the income from a false alarm could be a major blow to them. In some towns, the airshow is significant enough to affect the entire local and regional economy. What if an event is essentially cancelled due to a “threat” and the loss of revenue trickles down to job losses? This is a valid concern.

Then of course there is all the money that was spent on the event. It may seem callous to think of dollars during such a situation but what if those dollars belonged to a non-profit that used the airshow to raise money for homeless children, battered wives, or even an aviation lobbying group. The first two are obvious heart string pullers but the last one might be hard to understand. Yet, what if a favorite aviation lobbying group had a major loss on this event due to a false alarm and in the end did not have enough funds to defeat a new user fees bill? This could trickle down to all of aviation. It is a valid concern.

Worst case, let’s say you notified everyone, people left, vendors lost money, the event lost money, airshows nationwide took it on the chin, politicians insisted that all airshows have TSA screening, and crowds were thinner next year because airshows were now considered terror targets, all for a false alarm that didn’t even scrape someone’s knee? Is that the worst case?

What if you notified everyone, people panicked, attendees were trampled, a bomb went off at the gate through which everyone was attempting to leave, the airshow was cancelled, vendors lost money, the event lost money, airshows nationwide took it on the chin, politicians insisted that all airshows have TSA screening, and crowds were thinner next year because airshows were now considered terror targets, and twenty people were killed? Would the lawyers and politicians look at the event and say “You know what, they notified everyone, they did their part, so let’s just all leave them alone”? No way in hell would that happen.

Ultimately, there are situations that leave you damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Yet I believe there is an answer to this problem that may not be that obvious. It requires guts, principles, and a desire to do what is best for everyone even though it may cause a little grief up front. Here it is: If the event in question was yours, admit it was, and then take the lead in common sense airshow security. I believe it would be much easier than you think.

For starters, you could tell everyone the measures that were taken to secure the event. Next, you could express how difficult the decision was and then lay it on the line with a letter.

“Dear Airshow Attendees;
Life has risks. It is time we all admit it. Large gatherings of people, such as the one at our event, make desirable targets for anyone, or any group, wishing to cause mayhem. That is clearly and well understood by us and, as always, we will continue to provide a security presence for the event. But just so we’re clear, no amount of security can keep a crowd safe. Ultimately, your safety in such a group is a risk you are willing to take when you step onto these grounds and into such a group. You should educate yourself on these risks, learn to spot potential threats, and consider yourself in charge of your safety. With a people educated and self-responsible, together we can provide the common sense security that will keep us as safe as possible without the down side of giving in to or self-imploding events like these in the name terror (Post at every entrance and exit).” With that produced, follow it up with an open discussion.

Yes, that’s right; I believe the solution to this problem is an adult conversation on the subject. The ups and downs of both sides are debatable but preparing people for the possibility is not. Do it now and, should another threat happen, the answers will come much easier for everyone.

What do you think?

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