How Best to Ground Air Terrorists : Military Measures: Be Careful How You Use Them

A presidential commission’s dramatic call for American military strikes against air terrorists and the countries that support them--more about that below--shouldn’t be allowed to overshadow its other significant findings and proposals for making air travel more secure.

The seven-member commission, appointed after a bomb destroyed Pan American World Airways Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21, 1988, examined aviation security procedures in force at the time and found them deeply, almost inexcusably, flawed. It will probably forever remain a point of contention whether more rigorous baggage checks or more intensive intelligence work could have prevented the plane’s destruction and the deaths of all 259 persons aboard, as well as 11 on the ground. What’s urgent is to move rapidly to repair those remaining identifiable defects in the aviation security system.

In its most chilling conclusion, the commission reports that the Lockerbie tragedy “may well have been preventable.” In a key finding, it blames “Pan Am’s apparent security lapses” and the Federal Aviation Administration’s “failure to enforce its own regulations” for figuratively leaving ajar a door through which a terrorist bomb was successfully smuggled. Specifically, the commission thinks Pan Am might have taken aboard a piece of luggage checked through from another airline without physically searching it, as an FAA regulation in force at the time required. A major reason for hand searching unaccompanied baggage is that plastic explosives can’t be detected by routine X-rays. Pan Am sharply disputes that its system was flawed. It says it had been given verbal approval by an FAA official simply to X-ray unaccompanied baggage. The FAA denies this.

It is expensive and time consuming to subject every piece of airline luggage to a physical search. It may also be the most effective way to prevent the smuggling of hard-to-detect explosives. What about expensive new devices that are supposed to sniff out plastic explosives? The commission argues that these machines are “several years behind the terrorist threat.” Specifically, it thinks that they aren’t able to detect explosives in small quantities. The bomb thought to have been used to blow up Flight 103 apparently contained very little explosive.


The commission, recognizing that no aviation security system can be foolproof, proposes using punitive strikes to further deter attacks on airliners. It urges responsive or preemptive military attacks on terrorist bases and the countries that house them. Many applaud this call. Acts of terrorism of course cry out for punishment. The problems, now as always, come in being able to identify those responsible for specific outrages, locating them, and then, if the military option is indeed chosen, hitting with the precision that is demanded if the United States itself is to avoid the stigma of inadvertently killing innocent people.

Retaliatory strikes shouldn’t be ruled out, but their potential limits and drawbacks must also be kept in mind. Surgical precision may be more or less the norm in the operating room, but it’s still a rarity when it comes to the battlefield. Countries that are known to harbor and support terrorists ought to be punished. The preferred means is by applying economic and political pressure. In the case of, say, Syria, which has given refuge to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, the group suspected of the Pan Am 103 atrocity, the Bush Administration has yet to apply that pressure. It has yet to explain why it has not.