After Al Qaeda terrorists brought down four U.S. passenger airplanes on Sept. 11, 2001, America's flying public was not so keen on flying anymore. Domestic air travel dipped dramatically — for example, by about 20% at LAX — the following year.
Federal authorities rushed in with a number of measures to make flying safer and reassure a jittery public that planes were secure. In one of those measures, Congress transformed the modest Federal Air Marshal Service, which had 50 agents before Sept. 11 trying to deter hijackings on high-risk routes, into a massive effort with thousands of armed agents dispatched randomly on U.S. flights. The price tag went up too; since its expansion, the program has cost a total of $9 billion.
At the time this seemed like a reasonable, even necessary, step. If crime had become an in-flight problem, then it made sense to call in the cops. From a distance of 14 years, however, it's clear this program, for all its good intentions, has been little more than an expensive placebo. It may be time to let it go as one of the Sept. 11 responses that just didn't work out.
But can we? Are we far enough away from the trauma of that terrible day to take clear-eyed stock of the effectiveness of this and other security measures? We think it's not just possible but necessary. In fact, the process has already started — witness the (relatively small) steps Congress took recently to roll back the vast surveillance powers granted by the Patriot Act.
Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. (R-Tenn.), a member of the House committee that's been investigating the air marshal service, agrees, at least on the air marshals. He and others say that locking cockpit doors and installing airport screening has done more to make air travel safer. Duncan has taken it one step further, calling the air marshal service "the most needless, useless, wasteful program" the federal government operates. That's a remarkable statement, coming from a member of the party that considers seemingly every government program to be wasteful.
Duncan has a point. It's true that on-board terrorists have not downed a U.S. plane since Sept. 11, despite a few determined attempts, and the marshals may seem like a deterrent. But any terrorist who can do math could calculate that less than 4,000 on-duty air marshals divided into more than 30,000 U.S. flights a day equals quite favorable odds for mayhem.
Nor is there any data showing marshals successfully put down in-flight threats. In fact, passengers are apparently more likely to stop troublemakers on board than armed marshals. When on Christmas Day 2009 a Nigerian man tried to ignite plastic explosives in his underwear on a Detroit-bound flight, it was passengers who tackled the would-be terrorist and saved the plane.
Yet, even then, President Obama responded by promising to put more air marshals in the air. If this is a placebo, it's one the country should stop taking.