My wife dropped off our daughter at the airport on Sunday for a flight from New York to Chicago.
She did not need to fly. My daughter wanted to drive her own car home from college for her winter break, but I objected. The route would have taken her through several Great Lakes snow belts, and I did not want her to drive solo on such a long trip through rough weather.
I could have gone to Chicago to make the drive with her — I have been driving in tough winter climates my entire adult life — but there seemed little need when we made our plans this fall. Commercial aviation is much safer than driving, even for an experienced driver, and it promised to be less nerve-wracking as long as the flights operated on time. So I booked her air travel, and kept the option open that if the need arose, we could decide at the last minute to have me drive with her.
Routine as it is, flying is always an act of faith: Faith in the airline and the Federal Aviation Administration to run a safe operation, faith in the manufacturer to build a safe aircraft, and, of course, faith in the security agencies to keep us safe from terrorists and miscellaneous crazies.
It is safer to fly than to drive, but that does not mean driving is unsafe. We have much more personal control when we take to the highway. When we give up that control, we place our faith in others to ensure we do not have cause to regret it.
The Christmas attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 has put everyone’s focus back on aviation safety. This was not a botched attack; it was one that nearly worked. Al-Qaida succeeded in putting high explosives and a guy who was willing to kill himself detonating them in a window seat on an aircraft with about 300 people aboard. And, we learned last week, this was not the first time. A Somali man was stopped by African Union troops in that country from boarding a flight in November with similar items in his possession. This may have been an attempt at a dress rehearsal for the Christmas assault.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano did not inspire confidence when she witlessly told an interviewer two days after the Christmas attack that “the system worked,” citing the passengers and crew who subdued Flight 253’s would-be bomber. She backtracked a day later. Four days after the attack, President Obama acknowledged a “systemic failure” of the intelligence apparatus that might have intercepted the bomber.
Other aspects of the security response were better, however. Less than a week after Christmas, Dutch authorities began using full-body scanners on all passengers boarding U.S.-bound flights in Amsterdam, where Flight 253 originated. There were stepped-up searches of passengers at other international airports, and, after some understandable initial confusion, seemingly pointless restrictions on passengers’ in-flight access to lavatories and personal items were relaxed.
George W. Bush saw his domestic priorities largely go up in flames on Sept. 11, 2001. Amid the World Trade Center rubble three days later, he became a wartime president. When a rescue worker shouted “We can’t hear you,” Bush responded: “I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”
President Obama clearly hopes to avoid seeing his domestic agenda meet the same fate as his predecessor’s. But neither Bush nor Obama got to choose when and how our country was attacked. So, much like Bush, Obama emerged three days after an al-Qaida assault and promised to use “every element of our national power to disrupt, dismantle and defeat the violent extremists who threaten us.”
Obama was more fortunate than Bush. He did not have to make his remarks in a snowy Ontario cornfield, standing before a smoldering pile of wreckage. (The Flight 253 bomber’s handlers reportedly wanted him to detonate his package in American airspace, but they neglected to consider that flights from Europe to Detroit typically perform their initial descent over Canada, reaching the United States only as they prepare for a final approach to the runway.)
The president ought to invite every soul who was aboard Flight 253 to the White House, where he can kiss each child and shake the hand of every adult while he reiterates, and absorbs, that his most important duty is to keep every U.S. resident safe. This is what a parent does for his or her children, and this is what a president does for a nation.
The president knows this. He has two daughters, too. Some day, when his presidency is over, he may display the same faith I did by taking one of them to an airport for a flight between Chicago and New York. Or he just might decide to drive her where she needs to go.