Fear Less

Gavin DeBecker

Part 4

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Alarming words - whether spoken by some angry extremist or by our own public officials - cause people to react by going into a defensive posture, psychologically speaking. Though the words themselves can't put us at any actual risk, uncertainty about risk causes alarm, which causes a problem: When we are stunned or distracted, we raise the very drawbridge - perception - that we must cross in order to make successful predictions.

In the past thirty years, I've read, heard, and seen the world's most creative, gruesome, distasteful, effective, and well-performed threats. I've learned that it's important to react calmly, because when in alarm we stop evaluating information mindfully and start doing it physically.

For example, a death threat communicated in a letter or phone call cannot possibly pose any immediate hazard, but the recipient might nonetheless start getting physically ready for danger with the increased breathing and heartbeat to support all the fear-response chemicals and systems. These responses are valuable when facing present danger, but for a.s.sessing future hazard, staying calm produces better results. A way to do this is to consciously ask and answer the question "Am I in immediate danger?" Your body wants you to get this question out of the way, and once you do, you'll be free to keep perceiving what's going on.

Though thoughts of harming you may be terrible, they are also inevitable. Many people around the world (and even in America) hate America, some enough to actually harm us, others enough to want to harm us, many enough to threaten harm, and many others enough to be glad when we are harmed. Until 9/11 most people in the world had never seen Americans as human, vulnerable, or part of the world community. Our aloofness and our success bred envy. It is particularly difficult for Americans to fully believe and accept that people hate us so fiercely, and there has been lots of denial about this truth. Individual Americans can feel that they are just going about their lives, but that in itself- without your doing another thing - has been fuel for aggression. It's understandable that this aggression causes so much fear because it seems to many as if it came out of nowhere. It didn't, but whatever the reasons, all these thoughts about harming us are themselves harming us.

Thoughts are not the problem, of course; the expression of thought is what causes us anxiety, and most of the time that's the whole idea. Understanding this will help reduce unwarranted fear.

That someone would intrude on our peace of mind, that they would speak words so difficult to take back, that they would exploit our fear of flying, that they would care so little about us, that they would raise the stakes so high, that they would stoop so low - all of this alarms us, and by design.

Threatening words are dispatched like soldiers under strict orders: Cause anxiety that cannot be ignored. Surprisingly, their deployment isn't entirely bad news. It's bad, of course, that someone threatens violence, but the threat means that at least for now the speaker has considered violence and decided against it. The threat means that at least for now the speaker favors words that alarm over actions that harm.

For an instrument of communication used so frequently, the threat is little understood, until you think about it. The parent who threatens punishment, the lawyer who threatens unspecified "further action," the head of state who threatens war, the terrorist group that threatens ma.s.s killing, the child who threatens to make a scene - all are using words with the exact same intent: to cause uncertainty.

Though you wouldn't know it by the reaction they frequently earn, threats are rarely spoken from a position of power. Whatever power threats have is derived from the fear instilled in the victim, for fear is the currency of the threatener. How one responds to a threat determines whether it will be a valuable instrument or mere words. Thus, it is the listener and not the speaker - we and not the terrorists - who decides how powerful a threat will be.

In most instances of terrorist threat, the threat is the terrorist event. It is the end in itself. Speaking generally, those who threaten do not act, and those who act do not threaten.

What often happens, however, is that a threat refers to a previous terrorist act, thus attaching to the current threat the potency of the past tragedy. For example, after the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, any threat about blowing up a federal building conjured the original act and caused great anxiety. Hundreds of federal buildings were modified in response to an incident that happens, in effect, once every 230 years. n.o.body would want Timothy McVeigh to be among this nation's most influential architects, but that's one of the results of over-reaction.

A shooting from the sidewalk and we add bulletproof windows. Then a bomb in the lobby and we add X-ray machines and explosives-sniffing dogs. Then a bomb outside the building and we add vehicle barricades. Then a shooting from across the highway - as happened to CIA employees as they arrived at work one morning - and what do we do, add a fence around all the buildings? Some precautions aren't reducing risk so much as moving it around.

The point to remember when we think about what terrorists might do next is this: By its very nature, terrorism surprises us. It's true that there are sometimes trends in which several people or groups mimic a particular kind of act, but the overall history of terrorism is that it changes. Terrorists try to do unpredictable things. The terrorists imagination begins where the security expert's imagination (and budget) ends. Precautions that are reactionary, such as concrete barriers around every federal building (as opposed to those that are clearly special targets), end up costing us a lot, without making much difference to terrorism.

Our social world relies on our investing some threats with credibility while discounting others. Our belief that they really will tow the car if we leave it here encourages us to look for a parking s.p.a.ce unenc.u.mbered by that particular threat. The disbelief that our joking spouse will really kill us if we are late to dinner allows us to stay in the marriage. And finally, we are better able to go about our day-to-day lives with the knowledge that most of the time, terrorists with the power to act, act, and those without the power to act threaten.

Something often missing from worst-case scenarios is consideration of best-case management and response. Although it is difficult to fully prepare for every kind of emergency, it's clear that the U.S. government has extraordinary disaster-response capability. Throughout your life, you have seen our government respond with remarkable effectiveness to unusual and unpredictable occurrences (earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, fires, bombings, workplace-violence incidents, outbreaks of disease, and even attacks with jetliners). Those of us present during the Los Angeles earthquake, a devastating natural disaster, recall the rapid resumption of all utilities, the effectiveness of law enforcement, and a faster return to normal life than other nations facing the same challenges could likely imagine. The resources of our federal government, and those of state and local agencies, far outdistance any in world history. If we have learned anything from the emergencies we have experienced in our lives, it is that our infrastructure is strong, resilient, and capable.

For example, following the attacks on the World Trade Center, New York City, the state of New York, and the federal government brought together resources far beyond what most scenarios would have included. When I toured ground zero at the World Trade Center days after the attack, I was impressed to see emergency responders from all over the nation. I saw police officers from Sacramento, firefighters from Miami, medical officials from Detroit, and police cars and ambulances from other faraway cities. I saw personnel from every government agency one can think of. I even saw firefighters from Canada. Public and private resources worked together in astonishing ways, including the preparation of thirty thousand meals a day served around the clock to emergency workers (under the heroic direction of a restaurateur named David Boulet, who, along with an army of dedicated volunteers, made it his mission in life to feed emergency workers).

Having been closely involved in many emergencies and crises throughout my career, it rea.s.sures me to see the flexibility and industriousness of Americans (both in and out of government), particularly when things occur that we either could not or did not precisely predict. In fact, I find our ability to respond to the unpredicted calamities to be far more impressive than our ability to plan for the predictable ones. Prediction itself is an uncertain science, of course, but the ability of our government and our people to respond is quite certain. Remember, when any country on earth experiences some gigantic disaster, it is the United States that is most often looked to for help - because we're the country in the best position to provide it.

We all feel some uncertainty these days, and indeed these are uncertain times - like all times. Even so, there are things about which we can be certain: We can be certain that life doesn't give us anything we can't handle - and that's been proved by our management of every challenge we have faced together as a nation. And we can be certain that terrorist threats are not guarantees of action and, in fact, are usually in place of action. These certainties allow us to go about our daily lives; you remember, the daily lives that derive so much of their variety and vitality from uncertainty.


September 30, 2001

As I write this, I am sitting on a United Airlines flight from Los Angeles bound for New York City. Looking toward the c.o.c.kpit of this 767 is like being on the set of a play I've seen a hundred times, for that's how often I've imagined this view since September 11. That's how many times I've played over in my head the experience of the crew and pa.s.sengers - and the hijackers - on those four flights. I obsessed over the tiny details, not to be morbid but rather to be enlightened, to learn whatever I could from bringing my knowledge of violence and predatory crime to this precise s.p.a.ce and situation.

I am imagining the opportunity Atta must have waited for: the fastest and easiest way into the c.o.c.kpit. Just as I am doing now, and from the same vantage point, he watched the flight attendants. He knew that soon after takeoff, one of them would enter the c.o.c.kpit to see if the pilots wanted some coffee or a snack. Atta knew that after a minute or so, the door would open again. Then, he and his comrades could easily push the flight attendant aside and enter the c.o.c.kpit. They would find the stunned pilots strapped in their seats, absolutely unready and unable to defend themselves. The pilots would have every reason to expect some exchange of words with the intruders, to be ordered to fly somewhere, and the pilots would have been willing to comply. But instead, the pilots would be brutally and wordlessly attacked until fully incapacitated, and then pulled from their seats.

In the main cabin, another of Atta's men would be holding up a device he claimed was a bomb. He would bark instructions, then threats, then promises that everything would be all right, then threats again. As the pa.s.sengers moved into seats at the back of the plane, they would do all they could to avoid upsetting the hijackers. Soon, they would hear a heavily accented but rea.s.suring announcement over the loudspeaker: "Stay in your seats. We are returning to the airport." Like the pilots before them, the pa.s.sengers would have every reason to a.s.sume they would be all right if they just cooperated - except for the pa.s.sengers on Flight 93, who knew better.

In spite of the grimness of the subject, the exploration into airline security begun on that United flight has left me feeling far more hopeful than when I started. I found that pa.s.sengers today are safer from hijacking than they've been at any time in the past. Right now, today, it is safer to take a commercial flight than it is to take a shower, safer to fly across the country than to drive to work, safer to ride on an American Airlines jumbo jet than to ride on a Greyhound bus. Even today.

Yet many travelers remain unconvinced about airline security, and I believe that's because it is unconvincing. We just feel it, we just know that confiscating nail clippers is not the answer. We just know that having lots of armed men around the pa.s.senger-screening point brilliantly protects the X-ray machines but does not address the core of the issue. We see air security debated by politicians, regulatory agencies, the airlines, and lobbyists for pilots, mechanics, flight attendants, air-traffic controllers. The only people who aren't represented are the pa.s.sengers, and yet it is the pa.s.sengers who actually make air travel safe. Most of the issues you've been told matter so much really don't matter so much - and I know that may be hard to imagine, but I believe you'll find in the coming pages that it's so.

Some of what you're about to read may at first seem discouraging, but please stay with me. The destination in sight - if we do just a few easy things - is that we shall all have far more peace of mind about commercial air travel. That in turn will help others resume flying, which will help the major airlines, and that will help us all. In this chapter, I'm writing mostly about anti-hijacking strategies, but also about the ways America responds to security challenges, and also about you and me - and the comfort we can justifiably feel when flying commercially.

Though there are thousands of security precautions, they all fit into two broad categories: Category One: Those implemented to reduce risk Category Two: Those implemented to reduce anxiety Both types of precaution are important and both have meaning, but they are not the same. Unfortunately, when it comes to security, the American way has often been to implement procedures that are more relevant to a.s.suaging public anxiety than they are to reducing risk. After the shootings at Columbine, officials around the nation publicized that cameras had been installed in high schools - a perfect example of a Category Two security response (designed more to reduce anxiety than risk), particularly since Columbine had plenty of cameras, cameras that could do nothing to prevent the shootings. Were this a longer book, I could share dozens of times that Category Two security precautions were implemented and announced, dozens of times that the responses to fear-provoking incidents were more about getting us to shut up and stop worrying than about really addressing risk.

There's one particularly instructive example right now: After 9/11, buses had become the comforting alternative to flying for thousands of jittery travelers - a resurrection of sorts for the Greyhound company. But it didn't last long.

About three weeks after the 9/11 attacks, a Croatian national named Damir Igric was a pa.s.senger on a Greyhound bus traveling from Chicago to Orlando. He made two trips to the front of the bus to ask people to trade seats with him. Both refused. Soon after, Igric walked to the front of the bus for the third time and, without hesitation, slashed the driver's throat with a box cutter, pulled the driver out of the seat, and steered the bus off the highway. Igric and six others died, and thirty were injured.

Within two weeks, another Greyhound pa.s.senger ran to the front of the bus and attacked the driver. This time, pa.s.sengers quickly intervened and subdued the man, and n.o.body was hurt.

Just one day later, still another Greyhound pa.s.senger attacked a driver. Again, pa.s.sengers solved the problem immediately, grappling with the man so the driver could stop the bus safely. This attacker reportedly ranted about hijacking and threatened to flip the bus, but a Greyhound spokesperson mindful of troubling publicity suggested that the man be characterized as "an unruly pa.s.senger" and not a hijacker.

Within days of this frightening incident, a powerful military explosive called C-4 was found in a public storage locker at a Greyhound bus station in Philadelphia.

So, over the span of just a few days, beleaguered executives at Greyhound found themselves facing a major loss of public confidence, and something had to be done.

What was the main security procedure they implemented and announced to curtail hijacking and attacks on their drivers? "Pa.s.sengers will no longer be allowed to sit in the seats immediately behind the driver."

Prohibiting use of the front seats does not improve security for bus pa.s.sengers in any way at all. I feel sympathy for the Greyhound company, which had an awful time in 2001 (there'd also been two serious accidents just before September in which many were injured and two were killed). But their proposal to keep the front seats empty is a cla.s.sic Category Two security procedure. Even a cursory look at the cases reminds us that none of the first three men who attacked Greyhound drivers after 9/11 had been sitting in the front seats anyway, and far more important, some of the pa.s.sengers who saved the second and third buses were able to do so precisely because they were sitting in those seats!

Within two weeks of implementing the restriction about the front seats, still another Greyhound pa.s.senger attacked the driver. This time, there was n.o.body near enough to intervene, and the attacker successfully caused the bus to flip over, injuring thirty people.

Why did Greyhound implement a nonsense security procedure that actually increased risk? Because the kind of Category Two response they announced usually works in America, by which I mean that the public seems to say, "Oh, uh-huh, they've taken steps, looks good," and then goes back to sleep.

Let's not do that with airline security.

It may seem unlikely that an issue the government and the people care about so much wouldn't be resolved effectively, but take a look at this pa.s.sage from a New York Times article: The head of the Federal Aviation Administration announced today that his agency would soon propose a rule requiring airlines to place a bulletproof shield around pilots to protect them. . . . Until now, the airlines in this country have followed the wishes of hijackers to provide maximum a.s.surances that no one would be hurt.

The article goes on to say that Tuesday's incident "seemed to put a new face on the problem."

Yes, Tuesdays incident being a suicide mission did indeed put a new face on the problem, but the article wasn't about Tuesday, September 11. It was a Tuesday way back in 1970, one that also stunned the nation's air travelers.

An Eastern Airlines pa.s.senger named John Devivo told a flight attendant that he wanted to speak with the captain. Pa.s.sengers saw the flight attendant walk the man up the aisle and admit him to the c.o.c.kpit - though they didn't see why she did it.

Inside, Captain Robert Wilbur and co-pilot James Hartley were busy on final approach to Logan Airport. They turned and got the answer: The man was aiming a gun at them. Captain Wilbur advised the flight attendant, "It's okay, go tell the pa.s.sengers everything is all right." Devivo ordered the pilots to head the jetliner out to sea and "just fly till the plane runs out of gas." When the pilots hesitated, the gunman fired one shot into co-pilot Hartley. Though wounded, Hartley wrestled the gun away and used it to shoot Devivo twice. Several shots had been fired by this point, at least one bullet even pa.s.sing through the c.o.c.kpit door back into the pa.s.senger cabin.

The jet dipped a bit, but Captain Wilbur regained control. He looked over to see Devivo slumped on the floor, and Captain Hartley slumped in his seat. Compartmentalizing the terrible realization that Hartley was dying next to him, Wilbur continued to fly the jet. As he operated the controls, he came to another terrible realization: He himself was shot in both arms. Still another terrible realization: The a.s.sailant was regaining consciousness and coming toward him again. Wilbur used the gun to strike the a.s.sailant back down, and quickly landed the plane.

This incident of tragedy and heroism sp.a.w.ned media reports, questions about aviation security, and occurrences like many we saw after 9/11. For example, one man was taken off a plane after a flight attendant overheard him saying how easy it would be to kill a pilot. On questioning him, police learned that the man was a member of Congress. He acknowledged how "understandably uptight people are and the feeling of helplessness they have."

In short, we've been here before, but in 1970, FAA officials had never seen a suicidal hijacking, and maybe that's why they didn't follow through on their own proposal to make c.o.c.kpits entry-resistant. Actually that was the second time the recommendation was proposed and then left unimplemented. Let's not have a third.

Actually, we can't have a third, because we had it in 1974 when a man named Samuel Byck, armed with a handgun and a gasoline bomb, shot his way onto a Delta Airlines jet at the Baltimore airport, intending to crash the plane into the White House (sound familiar?). He killed a security guard and shot the pilot and co-pilot before police shot him.

We can't have a fourth, either, because in 1986, a pa.s.senger named David Burke stormed into the c.o.c.kpit of a jetliner over San Diego and shot both pilots. He crashed the plane into the ground, and all forty-three on board died.

And we can't have a fifth, because in 1994, a Federal Express employee named Auburn Galloway attacked the pilots with two hammers. Though sustaining several serious injuries, the co-pilot and flight engineer were able to get Galloway out of the c.o.c.kpit, allowing the pilot to land the plane. Galloway's plan had been to kill the pilots and crash the plane.

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We can't have a sixth, either, because later in 1994, in a plan strikingly similar to 9/11, members of a fanatical terror squad known as the Armed Islamic Group took over an Air France jetliner. Their plan was to fly it into the Eiffel Tower in Paris and detonate explosives on board just before impact. The hijackers were killed by French commandos who stormed the plane when it was on the ground for refueling.

The main weapons of the 9/11 hijackers were determination, ruthlessness, and small cutting instruments that would not likely have been detected through screening. Once in the c.o.c.kpit, persons of sinister intent could lock the door and incapacitate the pilots with or without weapons. There are so many examples of dangerous things a person could do that one is limited only by the imagination.

Caustic liquid in the eyes, even liquor that is served on board, could be enough to render pilots unable to fly, if even for a short time. That can mean a perfect terrorist success because the airliner can be taken out of stable flight by tampering with the major controls. Flying takes some training and skill - crashing takes none at all.

I mentioned that some of this chapter would be disturbing, but here's the good news about the pa.s.senger-screening problem: It's not that big a problem. Why? Because if you have appropriately fabricated and secured doors, and you keep them closed throughout the flight, it doesn't matter so much what a pa.s.senger carries on board.


In the future, aircraft may be modified or built to have bathrooms within the c.o.c.kpit s.p.a.ce, though the vast majority won't have that enhancement for many years to come. In the meantime, some airlines have implemented this procedure for bathroom trips: A pilot calls a flight attendant, who determines that the area around the c.o.c.kpit is free of pa.s.sengers. The pilot looks through a viewer to confirm that it's safe before opening the door. The flight attendant enters and the pilot exits at the same time. The pilot does not have a key for re-entry. When the pilot returns from the bathroom, the flight attendant confirms through the viewer that n.o.body else is around, opens the door - and they trade positions.

This works fairly well because it means that when the c.o.c.kpit door is locked, there is never anybody outside with a key. The only "way someone can get in is by being admitted by someone who is already inside.

A better access system would be to install an inexpensive concealed camera and microphone so the pilots can remotely view and monitor sounds in the area around the c.o.c.kpit. (Some airlines have done this voluntarily.) When satisfied that it is safe to do so, the pilot who remains in the c.o.c.kpit would be able to unlock the door remotely to readmit the pilot who has left to use the bathroom.


In-flight meal service for flight crews is a luxury, not an aviation requirement. a.s.suming that c.o.c.kpit doors are properly improved, meal service poses the single most substantial advantage to hijackers - and the single greatest security risk to the rest of us.

The solution can be stated simply: Stock the c.o.c.kpit with pre-flight meals and drinks to reduce the number of times the pilots must open the door.

These meals can be made fancy, creative, even luxurious. As a longer-term solution, airlines could develop a tray pa.s.s-through slot in the door or elsewhere in the wall of the c.o.c.kpit.

You might wonder what difference it makes if the door is opened for meal service, since it has to be opened anyway for trips to the bathroom. Well, first of all, there's just the sheer number of openings a.s.sociated with food and beverage service. Between taking the meal orders, delivering the trays, picking up the trays, snacks, dessert, coffee, grapes and cheese, there's an average of fifteen unnecessary openings per five-hour flight. One jetliner pilot recently told me, "The flight attendants who are best liked are the ones who come in and offer you coffee early in the flight - and keep the food coming the whole trip."

Second, unlike bathroom trips, meals occur at fairly predictable times. Third, when the door is opened for a bathroom trip, the pilot is standing and facing the doorway, a far better position to detect and repel an intruder. Any struggle or challenge that occurs right at the door cannot last long, because cabin crew and pa.s.sengers will address it. But if an intruder succeeds at getting in quickly during meal service, and locks the door behind him, then the improved locks actually work against air safety - by defeating the in-flight security system that most effectively protects airliners against hijacking: the pa.s.sengers.


There are many aspects of airport and airline security that I have not explored in this chapter, either because they are handled effectively or because they are still being studied and improved by government. What I have presented are enhancements and procedural matters that have been mostly missing from the public dialogue. I have focused upon enhancements you personally can influence through communicating with government and, perhaps most effectively, through your patronage of airlines that most closely adopt the philosophies we've explored. You vote, in effect, with your travel dollars, and so far, no security expert, aviation expert, or pilot has been able to tell me a single good reason to continue flight-attendant meal service into c.o.c.kpits. The first airline to curtail it will get my patronage, to be sure.

Military jets scrambled to fly alongside pa.s.senger planes, National Guard personnel at the airports, lengthy searches on the ground, and all the dialogue in all the congressional hearings will not add up to the effectiveness of the eight simple improvements suggested in the letter proposed below. I invite you to send it to the President, with copies to the FAA, your senators, your congressional representatives, and the major airlines. (If you use e-mail, the letter text and e-mail addresses are provided at my firm's Web site.) Dear Mr. President: I appreciate that you are working hard to help get the American public comfortable about flying again, and I know you are exploring several enhancements to airport and airline security. I want to share with you those precautions that would be particularly relevant to my feeling safest when flying commercially: 1. Fabricate and install c.o.c.kpit doors that are truly bullet-resistant, to replace the temporary fixes that were undertaken in 2001.

2. Install locking systems that make the doors truly entry-resistant, to replace the temporary fixes that were undertaken in 2001.

3. Install a system that allows officials on the ground to monitor the sounds in the c.o.c.kpit in the event there is loss of radio contact with the pilots, or a plane off course, etc. (This technology is familiar to millions of drivers who have On-Star and comparable services.) 4. Have a video and audio system that allows pilots to observe and listen to the area outside the c.o.c.kpit. Equipment cost: $1,500 5. Have a remotely operable access system that pilots can use from within the c.o.c.kpit. Equipment cost: $2,000 6. Make the issue of c.o.c.kpit security part of the pre-flight safety instructions, with words to the effect that "protection of the c.o.c.kpit door is a duty of both crew and pa.s.sengers."

7. Prohibit in-flight meal service if it requires opening the c.o.c.kpit door.

8. Require pilots to keep c.o.c.kpit doors closed and locked at all times there are pa.s.sengers on board.

Mr. President, if you accomplish these things, we pa.s.sengers (along with the cabin crews and occasionally helped by air marshals) will do the rest.


Everyone who has ever planned or undertaken a hijacking knew that controlling the pa.s.sengers was a top priority. But today, whatever hijackers say, whatever they do, pa.s.sengers will not willingly partic.i.p.ate. This was proved during the Greyhound bus incidents when pa.s.sengers immediately and powerfully subdued attackers who placed everyone's safety at risk. It was proved again on an American Airlines flight heading to Chicago less than a month after the 9/11 hijackings. A man yelling about crashing the plane into the Sears Tower bashed through the door and entered the c.o.c.kpit. The pilot pushed him back - but didn't have to do much else because literally on the man's heels there was a posse of pa.s.sengers who subdued him immediately.

Were the pa.s.sengers hesitant? Not at all. I interviewed one, Bill Neff, who intervened even though he thought at first that several people were charging the c.o.c.kpit. (He saw the c.o.c.kpit intruder and those chasing him.) He put it clearly: "The rules have changed."

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