What we knew when the police and FBI started responding to the LAX shooting was that someone had walked into one of the terminals and shot several people. What the authorities did was to help the victims, check for a confederate, and secure the scene (Terminal 3), which sounds about right…and hold incoming flights to the whole airport on the ground before they took off, which gave air travel across the country a coronary; divert a couple of arriving flights; stop nearly all departures for most of the day; and make the airport inaccessible to travelers by clogging roads with emergency vehicles.  In turn, this crippled the 405 and created hours of stopped and crawling traffic all over the west side.  They didn’t know whether they were in the middle of a large coordinated terrorist event; we  never know that for sure when a gun goes off (or a CO2 “bomb”).   But they did not have enough evidence that they were, or might be, to justify the chaos they ordained.

It was over the top.  It will always be possible for someone to come in the front door of a busy place with a weapon in a piece of baggage or a backpack and shoot people before he or she is stopped. One such incident might be part of a plot reaching out to other airports and other terminals, and might conceivably have something to do with risk to aircraft.  But that way madness lies.  It would have been wrong to close all the movie theaters in Colorado after Aurora, or stop having marathons after Boston, or shut down the Postal Service after one of its massacres: the shooting at LAX was, and reasonably appeared to be, a one-off, localized outrage.  Amplifying the costs to society of events like this on unsupported conjecture about what a fever dream of anxiety could blow it up into does real damage to millions of people and may even increase the likelihood of copycats.  I think security services in charge of public places, including airports, need to get a grip. It is not appropriate to bring a city to its knees to demonstrate how risk-averse the various police agencies are.

In contrast, while I’m on this, is the FAA’s mishandling of the small pocket knife issue for travelers.  Recall that they announced they would allow pocket knives with blades about the size of a Swiss Army Knife (one of those is really a useful thing to have with you when traveling, for mundane things like peeling an orange or opening a beer or tightening a loose screw in one of your gadgets), and then changed their mind.  A knife like that used to be a hijacking device before cockpit doors were secured, but now it’s not.  In fact, I would feel much safer if I knew a lot of passengers each had one to help them deal with one or two hijackers who might get something serious through security.  If we are willing to go up in the air in an airplane at all, merely to get somewhere, we cannot rationally believe that there is no risk small enough to tolerate for convenience and comfort.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

33 thoughts on “Overreaction”

  1. Nuance and proportional response are concepts that have pretty much vanished from many spheres of public life, not just law enforcement. I would like to think that the proliferation of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” tzotzkes is a response to this hyping of reaction.

    As for those terroristic weapons with the two-inch blades, I will point out that recently I saw one being used to in fact tighten a pair of glasses…on a train.

    1. I think it’s particularly bad in law enforcement. Law enforcement is always going to attract people who get offon having power. This is why we have so much police brutality.

      Nuance is no fun. Having the power to inconvenience thousands of people, though! That confirms how important they are!

    2. The original poster was designed and printed in enormous quantities (2.5m) by the British Ministry of Information in 1939 in preparation for the mass panic that air attacks were expected to produce. This never happened so the poster never got wide distribution originally. It still resonates because it reflects not only common sense but the actual response of most Londoners. This was more nuanced than the myth; working class East Enders resented the fact that they got hit (living near the docks) while the rich in the West End were largely spared.

  2. They could allow us to carry box cutters and it wouldn’t have any implications for hijacking anymore: The ability to hijack a plane with a small knife was a product of air travelers instructed to not resist hijackings, and unaware that the consequences of a hijacking succeeding could extend to mass murder. This sort of hijacking became possible because of a deliberate government policy of telling people not to resist hijackings, and became impossible before 9-11 was over thanks to people understanding that they had to resist anyway. Rules concerning pocket knives and nail clippers had nothing to do with that.

    9-11 was also enabled by the practice of disarming everyone on the plane, including the crew. Remarkably this continues to this day, with the armed pilots program having been deliberately sabotaged from the beginning.

    1. no matter how lucid your main point you seem at all times determined to provide some bitter implication into it, like a shred of aluminum foil folded into a piece of taffy, to make others wince. here, for example, you take the brute fact that the standard policy handling hijackings prior to 9/11 was non-resistence and negotiation and make it sound like it was some deliberate government plot to put air travelers in danger when it was a policy shared by pretty much every airline of pretty much every nation that was based on the history of hijackings that had taken place before 9/11.

      1. You’re reading the tin foil into it. My point was simply that all this security theater is pointless, that the 9-11 terrorist attack became impossible to replicate within hours of the attack, and banning pocket knives had nothing to do with it. That the governments of the world may have had a rational basis for asking people not to defend themselves does not change that.

        Now, the continuing determination to keep planes soft targets, with unarmed flight crews and disarmed passengers, that’s quite another matter, a triumph of ideology over rationality.

        1. Rather than debate ideology, can you tell us what incidents after the 9-11 hijackings would have been prevented by allowing armed flight crews and passengers?

          By my memory, there are zero in American jurisdiction.

          1. I should clarify I’m specifically thinking of firearms, not knives and such.

            But point stands: the current security regime has been _effective_, not “planes soft targets”.
            That is solidly refuted by evidence, not ideology.

          2. No, the public knowledge that a hijacking means mass murder, not a free trip to Cuba, has been effective. The current security regime is a joke, the only reason it ‘works’ is that terrorists have moved on to new tactics, realizing that the 9-11 trick was something they could pull off only once.

        2. Wait. Aren’t Federal Air Marshalls armed?* This is an honest question.

          *Though I have found plenty of references the strict marksmanship qualifications required for the job, I can’t seem to find real answer to the question online (though it wouldn’t surprise me if that was by design).

          1. “Rather than debate ideology, can you tell us what incidents after the 9-11 hijackings would have been prevented by allowing armed flight crews and passengers?”

            Why, to my knowledge, none, and that’s because they know it’s pointless to repeat a style of attack which relied on people not knowing they weren’t getting a free trip to an exotic location. The point is simply that taking away people’s pocket knives hasn’t had a thing to do with our security.

            “Wait. Aren’t Federal Air Marshalls armed?* This is an honest question.”

            Yes, they are armed, and they are not on every plane. Pilots, of course, are on every plane, but the administration has been determined to kill the Armed Pilots program. As I say, a triumph of ideology over rationality.

          2. Brett,
            leaving aside your vile slur upon the nature and motivation of the government’s pre-9/11 policy recommendation (and frankly I no longer care whether such outbursts from you are consciously intended), you’re just being illogical now. By your own admission: we’ve upgraded the physical security of the flight cabin, to prevent intrusion from outside. For this to be effective, there is one requirement beyond all others: that door must stay closed. Please to be explaining what possible good your hypothetical armed he-man pilot does stuck behind a securely closed door; also, stop for one moment and consider what happens once your Rambo Of The Jetliners opens the door, ready to Dispense Justice with his trusty shooting iron – and gets ambushed, or otherwise fails to prevail.

          3. Since shortly after 9-11, pilots have been locked in the cockpit so that if there is a hijacking there is no risk of the hijackers taking over the plane and using it as a missile. What good would arming the pilots, who are on the opposite side of a locked, bullet-proof door from the hijackers, do?

        3. There has always been a great deal of controversy about whether “Sky Marshall’s” should carry firearms and even more about the merits of arming cabin crews. The analogy that is often drawn is with prisons where guards (with a few exceptions) do not carry firearms. The general principle is that since prisoners can only get guns by taking the away from guards, it’s safer not to tempt fate by carrying guns where prisoners can overpower guards and so arm themselves.

          A typical commercial aircraft is an even more challenging environment for weapon retention. It’s very difficult to move around and impossible to maintain a safe distance form people who might want to overpower the “Sky Marshall” and use his gun to commandeer the airplane.

          What’s more there is the problem that these people almost certainly won’t able to react well to an attempt to take their guns. “Sky Marshall’s” are basically just moderately well trained, extremely bored cops who often fly for year after monotonous year without ever facing the actual threat for which they train. I don’t see any for somebody to stay sharp under those circumstances.

          There’s also the question of how useful a gun would be to someone who isn’t prepared to kill ruthlessly and indiscriminately. I know in the movies Dirty Harry emerges from the cockpit with his .44 magnum, yells for people to get down (which the instantly do) and then blows away the bad guys and then engages in clever repartee with an awestruck stewardess. I know that “Sky Marshalls” claim that they can safely acquire targets and fire from anywhere in the aircraft cabin but really I’d like someone to explain how this can be done because it doesn’t make sense to anybody who has been on a plane in the past thirty years or so.

          Armed flight crews seem far more problematic since the presence of the gun in the cockpit is likely to create a false sense of security and also authority for people who seem to be trained to always be “in command”. As others have pointed out repeatedly in this thread, without a gun to keep the passengers at bay, it’s impossible for a potential high-jacker to batter his/her/their way into the cockpit. They will only be able to do this if somebody conveniently brings a gun on to the plane.

          The idea of arming the cabin crew is simply silly. There is hardly a moment during the flight when even a single member of the cabin crew is out of arm’s reach of the passengers. I don’t see these people being able to retain their weapons let alone bring a chaotic cabin environment under control in time to blow away a high-jacker who might be using, say, a child as a human shield.

          Brett, what is it you think armed pilots and cabin attendants are going to be able to do with these guns (except endanger everybody else)?

          1. Ah, the liberal fantasy where guns are only useful for bad guys, and the only way the bad guys can get them is from the good guys.

            What do I think they’ll do with the guns? Shoot the hijackers. What else?

            Would I suggest the stewards be armed? Not really, for the reasons you propose. The flight crew are in a different position, of course.

            Perhaps we can agree that you or I are somewhat ignorant on this subject, and ask the people in the know?

            I’d be a lot more pissed about the attack on the armed pilots program, (Which attack started under Bush, let me note…) if I thought hijackings were still a serious problem. What pisses me off is that we continue with the theater, even ramp it up, while killing off the rational approaches. That’s stupid even where a problem is no longer serious.

          2. i’d like to see mr. bellmore answer a few questions.

            1. what exactly is the point of arming pilots if they are already safely in control of the plane behind a locked, bullet-proof door?

            2. what is the point of arming the flight crew unless they are to be trained and authorized to be as unconcerned about civilian casualties as a potential hijacker?

            3. do you also agree with the pilots that before a pilot should be armed they should undergo the ffdo training and undergo psychiatric evaluation?

          3. The person who moves first has the upper hand. The good guy does not know the bad guy is a bad guy until he makes his move. Therefore, the good guy is almost always at a disadvantage.

  3. Yep, completely over the top. They had a check list and simply went down it, escalating all the way until they thought no one could fault them for “doing everything possible” — even after it made no sense.

    A lot of what passes for “security” is nothing but cheap theater to reassure the public “everything possible” is being done.

    Compare the anxieties in the Cold War, when we actually did face a existential threat in the form of massed nuclear weapons. Many of those weapons are still there, waiting, yet we’ve somehow determined we won’t be in the backyard digging a fallout shelter this weekend. Whatever effort supposed terrorists might perform pales in comparison, but we seem to be willing to shut the country down “just in case.” This is more about political CYA than anything to do with real security.

  4. Look at the payout structure for public officials. They suffer nothing from overreacting, and will be crucified if they are ever seen as underreacting. Any rational public official, given this payout, would do what the LA cops and TSA did. We don’t need better cops; we need better voters.

    1. Bullseye. If there had been another assailant (and be fair Michael, you are judging in hindsight, which is always easier) who was aboard one of the planes waiting to leave, we would have had Congressional hearings on the shoddiness of the government response, the lackluster concern for security, the lassitude of the police, etc.

      1. Keith,
        It sounds like things went far beyond verifying existing security perimeters weren’t breached. I saw a group of pics of various first responders, apparently taken from a news helo, showing chem-bio decon units being set-up. OK, I guess we get that every time now. I’d argue it’s still a overreaction in the absence of confirmed need.

        Besides, all those folks would also be running code through massed traffic jams. Besides plain ol’ folks dying in sidelined ambulances, there’s plenty of folks trying to avoid hurting anyone headed for the airport already. I suppose we’ll send the WMD folks for good measure…

        Obviously, if you’re trying to justify spending all that homeland security money year round, year after year, it’s all got to turn out whenever there’s the slightest reason to, otherwise it’s going to be hard to come up with much for next quarter’s report…Yes, these folks in DHS/EMS/etc have learned well from DoD.

        Yes, a serious incident that needed a significant response. I’d say they need to assess the need for staging and phasing. Otherwise they risk becoming the incident, instead of responding to it.

  5. “In turn, this crippled the 405 and created hours of stopped and crawling traffic all over the west side.” How many died in ambulances that couldn’t get to the ER in time?

    1. I’m not sure you’re familiar with Los Angeles traffic. Hours of stopped and crawling traffic is not unprecedented, and I suspect the emergency services have ways of coping as best they can.

  6. And to think I’ve had two flights in a row where I was able to get into my happy place and not seethe with rage over the complete and utter waste of resources and time.

    I call it Heimat Sekuritat for a reason.

  7. Hey, if we don’t have terrorism (real or built up from other violence), what would bind the nation together? Being against terror is about the only thing we agree on. It’s like a blizzard bringing together a metro area– we all have the TV on all day to monitor it, to see how everyone else is doing. Very few people in Boston were upset about the Tsarnaev shutdown for this reason. Simply by staying home they were all working with the authorities, and therefore part of healing their community. Remember how we said that a problem with the War on Terror was that it didn’t ask anything of the public? Well, shutting down air travel makes the delayed traveler part of the effort to find the killer/killers/possible terrorists. This is the one thing in the whole world that conservatives get right: the community/country can only be unified by a common enemy.* It leads to all kinds of inefficiencies when you look at particulars, but does provide vitality overall. As the great warrior/philosopher Slim Charles said: “If it’s a lie, then we fight on that lie.”

    * yes, I’m arguing that the request for sacrifice during the GWoT was a conservative position, mostly held by liberals. Since current conservatives are basically shit-flinging monkeys (sorry, Brett– not you but your allies), it’s up to liberals to actually perform the functions of conservatism.

  8. With cockpits somewhat secure the only thing needed is to instruct the pilots that their goal, once a hijacking commences, is to get the plane onto, or into, the ground with no harm to anyone outside the plane.

    1. This changed in the days following 9/11. As Brett says, the thing that makes terrorist hijackings unlikely was a a simple change in airline contingency rules (from “do what they say to save the passengers” to “lock the cabin door and pay no attention to what they are doing behind it”), plus the change in passenger attitudes that took place first in Flight 93 on the very day. SFIK all the attempted acts of airplane terrorism since 9/11 have aimed at destroying planes with bombs.

      1. I guess I needed more explanation. Pre-9/11 the pilots followed the hijackers directions and passengers stayed seated. My position is now that the pilots either land safely, crash land, or even nose dive the plane into the ground so nobody not on the plane is hurt. The passengers and hijackers are considered ‘dead’ once the hijacking starts. If the passengers regain control, fine. Even then the pilots just get it on the ground and law enforcement takes over sorting out the details in the cabin.

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