December 01, 2010

The great reactionary novelist Evelyn Waugh owned a country house in Combe Florey, southwest England. Among the furnishings was a set of three paintings under the collective title The Pleasures of Travel: 1751, 1851, 1951.

The first painting shows the interior of a stagecoach carrying two men and four women. A masked highwayman has burst in and is pointing a pistol at one of the men, who is handing over his pocket watch. The four ladies display varying degrees of terror. The second male passenger, however, has surreptitiously drawn his own pistol, and we can suppose that the highwayman is in for a surprise.

In the second picture we are in a Victorian railway carriage. A uniformed ticket inspector with a splendid beard is at the carriage window. One of the lady passengers seems to be showing her ticket. All is calm and civilized, the image of bourgeois gravity and harmony.

Both pictures were painted by the now-forgotten Victorian artist Robert Musgrave Joy. The third of Waugh’s paintings was one he personally commissioned from Richard Eurich to complete the set. It shows the interior of a plane“€”an “aeroplane,” Waugh would have said”€”right at the moment when some catastrophic failure has occurred.

Showing visitors around the house, Waugh would pause to let them take in the three paintings. Then he would point to the third one and exclaim with a gleeful chuckle: “They are all doomed!”

Ninety-five percent of plane crashes have survivors, and crashes are extraordinarily rare. Your lifetime chance of dying in an auto accident is around one in a hundred. For a plane accident it’s one in 20,000. Not only are planes an order of magnitude safer than cars and at least a further order of magnitude safer than stagecoaches (for the manifold horrors of which, see pages 169-176 of Paul Johnson’s Birth of the Modern), they are probably safer than the railroads about which Waugh was so nostalgic. Remember the Tay Bridge Disaster or the conclusion of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia tales.

Our imaginations care nothing for statistics. It is the vulnerability of a plane in flight that bothers us. If something dire happens six miles up in the air, then, as a Chinese friend expressed to me in the pithy way characteristic of his language: Suan wanle!“€”“You can reckon you’re finished.” That vulnerability is irresistible to terrorists as a point of leverage. Quite a small bomb, even one small enough to conceal in a shoe or body cavity, can bring down a passenger plane, killing hundreds”€”more than 500 in the case of an Airbus. Such insane malignity is hard for a normal person to understand. There’s no doubt it exists, though. What can we do about it?

“€œFederal employment has its own logic, which does not, in the TSA or anywhere, correspond very closely to the real world’s requirements.”€

Talking to people about this since 9/11, I’ve heard a number of common responses.

“€¢ Libertarian: Government is as hopeless at airline security as they are at anything else. Let airlines and citizens take care of matters. Allow passengers to carry firearms. There’d be thousands of armed citizens per terrorist.

This one was common in the year or so after 9/11, but you don’t hear it anymore. Beginning with the shoe bomber incident, it quickly became clear that if terrorists can no longer take over a plane’s cockpit, they’ll be content to blow the plane up. Having a hundred armed citizens in the cabin won’t help unless the terrorist is as incompetent as the shoe bomber.

“€¢ Private enterprise: All right, but let the airlines do it. Government is still hopeless.

It’s an awful thing to say, given that government truly is hopeless at pretty much anything it tries to do, but it’s not clear that in this case the airlines would do better.

There needs to be some reliance on national-security databases containing the kind of thing you don’t want leaking out into the world at large. For another, here are the names of some airlines: Air Astana (Kazakhstan), Air Zimbabwe, Angkor Air (Cambodia), Aviateca (Guatemala), Azerbaijan Airlines”€”and I haven’t even gotten through all the A’s there.


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