2003-10-30 / This Week's Attitude

This Week’s

By Neil S. Friedman
This Week’s Attitude By Neil S. Friedman Student’s Stunt Exposes Ongoing Airline Security Flaws

Student’s Stunt Exposes Ongoing Airline Security Flaws

Even though his criminal actions could land him in prison, Nathaniel Heatwole, a
20-year-old college student, appropriately believed that exposing the security gaps that exist in the nation’s airports was worth the risk.

An avowed Quaker, who refused to register for the draft when he turned 18, Heatwole basically committed an act of civil disobedience that,
optimistically, should hasten the continuing im-provement of what the American public has been promised for over two years — safer air travel.

If an amateur, like this 20-year-old pacifist,
can effortlessly violate airline security, do we
dare contemplate what determined fanatics can do — again?

After the incident garnered national attention, President Bush announced the government will pursue a more aggressive policy against potential threats to airline security. The public presumed that was one of the primary objectives 25 months ago. Alas, it seems the government is once again closing the proverbial barn door after the horse has been stolen.

A spokesman for the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA), fashioned in the aftermath of 9/11, to administer security at the nation’s airports, said that while vast improvements have been implemented, the system "still has limitations." Another said that amateur testing "like this doesn’t show us where we have flaws."

Maybe not, but it damn sure illustrates for the public — and the world — that security on these shores still has as many holes as Swiss cheese.
The uproar and red faces from government officials over Heatwole’s acts are more from embarrassment than anger.

TSA officials should learn from Heatwole’s actions so those with harmful intent can‘t get away with emulating him, instead of even thinking about prosecuting him.

Over a seven month period this year, Heatwole told the FBI he was able to breach security at
two East Coast airports by hiding plastic bags
containing box cutters, similar to ones used by some of the 9/11 terrorists, and other potentially lethal materials in bathrooms on four commercial airplanes. A student at a North Carolina college, Heatwole was arrested and released without bail. He is scheduled to appear in court November 10 for a preliminary hearing. If convicted, he faces up to ten years in prison.

Though what he did was harmless, it is, nonetheless, far more serious than a fraternity prank. Heatwole should not be made an example of to satisfy justice and humiliated government
agencies. Granted, no security system is infallible, especially in a free society. However, it’s to the TSA’s shame that no one came across the secreted materials that Heatwole admitted he smuggled aboard the planes until five weeks after he placed them. This, after the young man contacted the
airline, detailing his exploits and even supplying personal contact information so he could explain his actions. Sadly, no one ever responded. Also, TSA officials didn’t let the FBI know until the day after maintenance workers discovered the items
on the planes.

TSA has let the nation down and the American people deserve valid clarification for this seemingly slipshod goings-on.

Federal prosecutors would be judicious to merely slap the college honors student on the wrist and send him to his room — without TV, telephone and computer privileges for a week or more. After all, what he did was without malice or harmful intent, yet exposed serious flaws in the nation’s airline security that has undergone major changes, in
personnel and funding, to revamp and improve a system that still shows evidence of glaring
weaknesses that resulted in death and destruction on that fateful day two years ago.

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