Stopping Catastrophic Violence Against School Children: Some Lessons from Aviation Security

An opinion piece from Andrew Goldsmith, CEO, AGX Marketing.

I can only speak for myself, but the death of American school children at the hands of a teenager armed with a legally purchased semi-automatic rifle was too terrible to believe.  Could this happen to small children sitting in their classrooms, looking forward to their summer vacation?


Twenty-one years ago, America endured another terrible crime.  In its aftermath, things changed. Dramatically.  We did not accept catastrophic terrorist attacks as the “price of freedom.” We enacted new laws, created new federal agencies, spent billions of dollars, and imposed significant infringements on individual privacy and freedom.  And, somewhat shockingly, there is still broad, bipartisan public support for making aviation security a national priority.  How has this been possible in our politically polarized country? Let me suggest some lessons learned from aviation security that may be of use in preventing future violence against school children.

Lesson #1: How You Define the Threat Matters.   One of the most important decisions post 9/11 was to define the threat narrowly.  In this case, it was and remains people with the intent and means to cause catastrophic harm to the national aviation system.   It was – and is – assumed that people with that intent could use a variety of tactics to achieve their goals – guns, box cutters, chemicals, explosives, but no technologies have been banned outright.  I suspect this approach – stopping bad people vs. controlling potentially bad things – has made it easier for aviation security to maintain public support despite the massive inconvenience of security checkpoints.  A similarly narrow focus on the most “high risk” persons may be useful for building public support for measures to protect school children.

Lesson #2.  Most Americans Will Accept Some Limitations on Personal Freedoms, But Under Limited Circumstances.  You cannot “open carry” on a commercial aircraft.  You cannot board an airplane with a knife, or an unloaded handgun, or ammunition, or an AR-15.  Those are serious restrictions, and yet, there has been no recent, serious legislative effort on the federal level that I am aware of to change that.  And that is not the only infringement on personal freedom that most people have reluctantly accepted – just ask anyone who has gone through a TSA pat-down.  Why have these infringements been tolerated in the context of aviation security? Three reasons come to mind.  First, many of the most severe restrictions are temporary.  Second, the consequences to everyone on an airplane if something goes wrong – an accidentally discharged weapon, for example — at 30,000 feet are something we can all understand.    But the most important reason may be that the families of very powerful politicians fly commercial.  I suspect this made has aviation security “real” and personal for these individuals, and made them willing to make tough compromises.  I hope we can create a similar sense of urgency when it comes to protecting small children.

Lesson #3: There Is No Silver Bullet.  After 9/11, there were some self-anointed security “experts” who argued that the only additional security measure needed was to harden airplane cockpit doors.  But fortunately, over two decades, most Americans came to understand the concept of layered security, which begins well before the bad guys show up at the airport.  It includes pre-flight vetting systems, terrorist watch lists, and a lot of unseen police work and intelligence gathering. This is on top of more security personnel, hardening the target, and extensive physical security measures – and federal air marshals, and restrictions on what you can do on the airplane itself.  In short, we built a multi-layered infrastructure to protect air travel that with all its flaws has worked reasonably well to date – surely, we can mobilize our collective energies and talents to protect young kids.


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