Getting the drop on terrorists

In America’s Wild West, when law enforcement was spotty or nonexistent, vigilantes sometimes stepped in. A known cattle rustler might be found face-down in a gully with a terminal case of “lead poisoning,” as they used to say in TV westerns.

Whatever purpose was served in such circumstances by vigilantism (a term derived from San Francisco’s Committee on Vigilance, formed by prominent citizens in 1851 to combat organized crime), it is a practice of which most Americans now disapprove, conjuring up visions of mob violence and lynching. However, few would likely question that under the most extreme circumstances, it still has a place. In several incidents within the past few months, the unilateral actions of civilians averted potentially significant problems during commercial flights. A man tried to open an emergency exit door during a flight from Houston to Chicago before several passengers subdued him, and a flight attendant and two passengers intervened as a Yemeni national, shouting “Allāhu Akbar” (“God is Great”), attempted to break into the cockpit of a Chicago to San Francisco flight.

There have been other incidents of varying degrees of concern since the prototypic example of justifiable vigilantism, when on September 11, 2001, the passengers and crew of United Air Lines Flight 93 fought hijackers and caused the plane to crash in western Pennsylvania. In 2001, “shoe-bomber” Richard Reid unsuccessfully attempted to detonate explosives hidden in his shoes and was subdued by a flight attendant and a passenger; in 2006, on a London to Washington, D.C. flight, an apparently psychotic woman became unruly and had to be subdued and handcuffed by other passengers; and on Christmas Day in 2009, a Nigerian terrorist tried to ignite an incendiary device as his flight was preparing to land in Detroit.

But some other incidents occupy gray areas. Airlines have informed pilots and flight attendants that terrorists appear to have staged dry runs of attacks on airplanes in order to provoke, test and analyze security measures. There was, for example, the suspicious 2004 incident on a Northwest Airlines flight from Detroit to Los Angeles during which a group of 14 Syrian musicians indulged in several hours of bizarre behavior that passengers and members of the flight crew suspected was terrorism-related. The men loitered in small groups during the flight; made innumerable trips to the lavatories, often carrying a large paper bag that passed from hand to hand; and finally, as the plane was making its final approach into Los Angeles, “suddenly, seven of the men stood up in unison” and walked to various parts of the plane, according to a fellow passenger who later wrote about the experience.

For the millions of us who fly regularly, these sorts of incidents, and the prospect of would-be terrorists testing the vulnerability of airplane security, brings up the questions of when passengers should intervene, and what they should do.

Tommy Hamilton, SWAT team commander for the police force at Dallas-Forth Worth Airport, who has worked with air marshals, cautions against a rush to vigilantism and urges reliance on the professionals. “Federal air marshals have credentials and will identify themselves as soon as practical. It will be easy to see who they are. They will not identify themselves until after someone has identified themselves [sic] as a terrorist-hijacker.”