L.A., S.F. Airports to Get National Guard
National Guard troops with M-16 assault rifles are to report for guard duty at Los Angeles International and San Francisco airports today, in a move Gov. Gray Davis called “a symbol of the changes that have occurred at airports to enhance passenger safety.”
But experts warn--and Guard officials acknowledge--that the show of force against terrorism must be executed with great care to avoid harming those it is meant to protect.
John Reppert, a retired Army general who is a research center director at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, said the presence of the National Guard may be most important as a symbol.
“Frankly, in my opinion, the reason they are there is to restore confidence to the public,” Reppert said. Carrying M-16s, for instance, is useful for intimidating wrong-doers and reassuring skittish travelers, he said. But actually firing a high-powered combat rifle in an airport terminal could do more harm than good.
“I would not want soldiers to use an M-16 in a public place,” Reppert said. “Opening fire in an airport terminal is dramatically different from doing so in a village.”
The harder bullet used by the assault rifle is more likely to ricochet than a round fired from a pistol, Reppert said, which could harm bystanders.
It might even be wise to keep the M-16s unloaded, Reppert said. “As a commander, I would be very nervous about a soldier carrying a loaded gun. For one thing, he might drop it.” It is also “unlikely people are going to come in and try to shoot their way to an airplane,” he said.
It is common for soldiers on guard duty to keep their guns unloaded, with ammunition ready in a pouch. The sentries guarding the USS Cole when it was bombed in October 2000 told the Washington Post they did not have ammunition in their guns, and did not think it made a difference in the surprise attack.
But Maj. General Paul D. Monroe Jr., the top officer of the California National Guard, said the M-16s carried at LAX will be loaded. To fire the weapon, the soldier must charge it by pulling a handle and then release the safety mechanism, a process that takes about two seconds, Monroe said.
Maj. Stanley Zezotarski, a California National Guard spokesman, noted, however, that Guard troops would fire their weapons only as a last resort, and would typically let armed airport police officers take the lead in situations where shots might be fired. Guard troops today use their weapons sparingly, he said, pointing out that 22 shots were fired by the National Guard during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, though more than 20,000 were fired by the Guard in the 1965 Watts riots.
Monroe acknowledged that it would be preferable to have the Guard’s police units at the airports, but they have been activated and sent out of state. “Normally, our first choice would be to use our law enforcement units armed with side arms,” he said.
Monroe said, however, that most Guard troops get 16 hours a year of training in how best to assist civilian law enforcement.
Such training, Reppert said, is crucial in preventing misunderstandings between the military and the police officers they work with as well as civilians. Police also need to give specific instructions to soldiers, who may not be familiar with their protocol.
“If you’re on a base in Iraq and you throw someone to the ground, the odds of an Iraqi filing a liability suit against you are zero. That’s not true at LAX,” Reppert said.
“If a military person is told to search someone, there are no rules about sexual contact or touching in an inappropriate manner. There are a lot more steps to follow in an airport, which paying passengers with legal rights expect, than infantry troops are trained to do,” he said.
Gen. Monroe emphasized that the California Guard has experience working with civilian police during deployments such as the 1992 riots. Guard personnel know “we are there to support civilian authorities. We work for them,” Monroe said.
Los Angeles and San Francisco are the first airports to deploy Guard troops. About 700 will be patrolling all 30 of California’s airports by mid-October.
On Thursday, Gov. Davis reminded National Guard troops at the armory in Manhattan Beach of the importance of their presence.
“This is a very important assignment . . . your presence at California airports will restore confidence in the traveling public, and we need to get on with our lives,” he said.