Was the U.S. Government Prepared to Kill All the Passengers on Board a United Flight to Geneva?

Last summer I noted the story of a United flight that returned to DC after a seat reclining incident.

Two passengers tussled over the one in front reclining their seat, and two F-16s were scrambled.

At the time I noted that there’s ultimately only one possible thing that those F-16s could possibly do: shoot down the plane and kill everyone on board.

That’s what they were clearly moving into position to do, if it was determined that the scuffle presaged a terrorist attack. We learned on September 11, 2001 that planes could be commandeered and used as missiles. I’m not getting into the question at this point of whether it’s the right decision in a given circumstance to trade off the lives of everyone on board for the lives of people on the ground who might be lost in an attack. One could imagine that there’s a net saving of lives if the plane were shot down, if we knew for certain it was going to hit a dense population target. Or perhaps one would argue that even if more people would be killed in the plane than on the ground, that it’s still a legitimate choice in order to foil the intended plans of the particular terrorists who are directing the aircraft.

Now, this week a United flight bound for Geneva was diverted to Boston when a camera left by a passenger on a previous flight was found in an unoccupied seat.

Again, fighter jets were scrambled.

Capt. Ruth Castro, a spokesperson for the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) confirmed to CBS News that two F-15 fighter jets were scrambled to intercept the flight at about 9:00 p.m. Eastern, shortly after it departed from Newark.

“The fighters were scrambled, then intercepted and shadowed the aircraft” before it landed safely at Logan, said Castro.

In this case it obviously wasn’t necessary to kill everyone on board because of a camera in a seatback pocket that the crew cleaning the plane between flights didn’t find (shouldn’t they be doing a more thorough job? A good reminder you may not want to touch items in the seatback pockets…).

But it strikes me as strange that reporting on the scrambling of military fighter jets is so matter of fact.

There are difficult questions. But the notion that the government is now prepared to wrestle with those questions, that when an inflight anomaly is reported somewhat readies their trigger finger, would seem to warrant at least a more explicit noting in news stories. Instead, it’s something about which we’ve all become passé.

In addition to the moral question, it strikes me odd that it doesn’t raise for anyone legal questions.

I am not an attorney, let alone a legal scholar in the use of military power on U.S. soil. For goodness sakes, my understanding of the Posse Comitatus Act is limited to what I’ve read on Wikipedia. But is the use of military air power to kill American citizens in U.S. airspace even authorized by any Act of Congress?

I’m not arguing that it isn’t, or that there’s no theory that would suggest that it is, but if it isn’t clearly established by legal precedent then it would seem to me at least worth noting such.

Or — and I’m hardly the median ignorant observer of such matters — if it’s not clear to me the legal basis upon which this is proceeding, it would seem like the such awareness might not be broadly held by the public at large, and again another reason why discussion of such would be worth noting in a news story on military fighter jets being scrambled… so that they would be in a position to shoot down a commercial airliner.

Further, it would seem worth noting under whose direct authority the fighter jets were scrambled, and who directly would be giving the order to kill everyone on board?

These seem to me the kinds of things that we should be paying more attention to, a shift over the past 10 years to where we are simply used to and expect the government to make decisions about which Americans live and die in the moment based on a given set of exigencies. And it’s become so ingrained that no one even notices.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Thing is I don’t think it really has anything to do with the choice of who lives and dies, it is just more theater to add to the daily show that goes on across the country at every TSA security checkpoint. Let’s not forget that there was a lot of heat taken for the fact that on 9/11 they tried to scramble jets out after the first attack but were too late to do anything. I think this is all just about showing that “hey we can get F16s out damn quick to any airplane”. The likelihood of a plane being shot down because of an argument over seat recline or a computer or camera left in a seat back pocket are zero. This is just another expensive way of trying to flex some theatrical muscle to “show” they’ve “got out backs”

  2. I agree with Phil. I do also think that it’s probably now standard protocol (for ‘CYA’ reasons) that if a plane reports a security issue, jets are scrambled. One hopes that authority to actually fire weapons can only come from the White House.

    Also, there’s the value in having a plane up that could do a flyby and look into the cockpit, make sure the pilots are okay and not under duress.

  3. @David “Also, there’s the value in having a plane up that could do a flyby and look into the cockpit, make sure the pilots are okay and not under duress.” This isn’t Top Gun…

  4. I was working for the gov’t on 9/11 and a co-worker’s husband who worked for the military phoned her and warned another plane was coming in over Pennslyvania and they were going to shoot it down.

  5. I completely agree with Phil. Yes, it’s expensive to scramble fighters; however, it’s a good real world “exercise” and you get some media attention. Hundreds of military aircraft are flying throughout the nation on a given day doing training exercises. That is expensive! Scrambling some fighters is a drop in the bucket.

  6. +1

    When reelection is your goal, it’s much more important to appear to be taking potential threats “seriously” than anything else. Ironically the other mutual beneficiary of this incentive pattern is the terrorists themselves.

  7. Thoughtful post, and yet another set of unanswered questions, unasked even. You are right to question the uncritical news coverage and public complacency.

    I don’t believe there is someone really setting up these overreactions just to intimidate and indoctrinate the public. But that is the natural outcome of this giant unrestrained security-industrial-complex we’ve seen grow like a cancer.

    Fighter jets? For a forgotten camera? Really?

  8. I don’t want anyone “on my back” when flying on a plane. I sure as hell don’t feel safe if there are fighter jets “escorting” me to safety when all they are there to do is shoot down the airliner. I completely agree with the logic of your post.

    If there are say 150 people on board a plane, even if it is directed towards a target, there is a high possibility that there won’t be too much collateral damage.

  9. Wanted to add that my +1 was for Phil’s post, not the one that ended up above mine. It’s terrible policy and an awful use of taxpayer dollars to put on security theatre of any kind, especially one that implies the US gov is in the business of deciding what lives should be traded for others.

  10. Exellent post Gary! The F16 is not a reconnaissance aircraft, its sole purpose is to shoot other aircraft out of the sky. Every time this happens it makes my blood boil because it was government ineptitude that caused 9-11 in the first place and now we are often faced with these incredible overreactions. And now we have unionized government screeners. Incredible!

  11. Well, a fighter can “herd” a passenger jet to a specific area, and any sane pilot will do as ordered (fighters or not). The question of “kinetic action” only comes into play if the plane does not respond to instructions. In that case, the authorities have eyes on the plane that can provide first hand information on pilot compliance, aircraft integrity, movement within the plane, metrics (altitude, speed, heading, etc), all which is vital to making a decision.

    As for killing everyone on the plane, if a terrorist has the notion of crashing it, then the probability of everyone on the plane dying is pretty high, so it is likely the equation removes the lives of the passengers and crew from the variables. Sounds crass, but war is messy and we are in a state of war, regardless of our complacency.

    In addition, an escort may not always mean action against the plane; rather, it may be to protect someone on the plane (senators, cabinet members, etc).

  12. I am the only one who remembers watching Pierre Salinger interview local people immediately after the 9/11 Pennsylvania crash and hearing them state that they saw an explosion in the sky before the plane hit the ground? Those interviews only ran once, that I know of, and were immediately yanked off the air because they clearly indicated that our military did, in fact, shoot the plane down. If you listen closely to the tapes and phone calls from the plane, you will hear how the passengers took control of the plane (with pilots among them) just before the plane went down.

  13. I don’t think there *are* any visual reconnaissance aircraft, and they surely couldn’t get to where they need to be as quickly as an F16. Perhaps live high-def in-cockpit cameras might be a better option for that type of observation anyhow…

    I really don’t have an issue with this. I think it’s for practice more than for show. And it’s good to have real world practice for that type of thing.

  14. @Chris: good point. The F16 does all sort of stuff. Just don’t tell the terrorists that it’s only a reconnaissance model!

    @MM: one could just as easily argue that the decision to not act is more immoral if you have a certainty of a greater number of deaths. In this scenario, the terrorists create a situation where there is no good or ethical option. Not that a ruling by a German count should have any bearing on the U.S., or define our morality for us.

  15. Remember KL007. I’m sure scenarios and protocols have been well thought out, but a series of failures could lead to disaster. Guns being drawn only increases the risks. Planes regularly fly over Manhattan and other densely populated areas. There could be a scenario where there is not much time to react, comm system/transponder failure, miscommunication, etc. Add in foreign airlines. Interesting times.

  16. @Reader actually what few posts exist in that forum don’t really respond to what I’ve written, looks like several people think it’s important to shoot down planes while I just think that shouldn’t go unremarked upon.

  17. I’m surprised that most seem to agree that the only thing the fighters are there for is to fire on the passenger jet. Does no one see the value of having eyes on the plane to communicate much more detailed and accurate information about what its condition, path, etc are than what can be provided by a blip on a radar screen? Particularly if the plane’s communication system goes down, the fighter pilots could relay information to ground controllers about what the plane is doing. And while movie scenes from Top Gun may not be real life, I imagine a fighter could get close enough to use binoculars to read a large handwritten message from someone through the plane window, I mean look at how close the blue angels and thunderbirds fly to each other.

    Sure it’s nuts to scramble planes for a forgotten camera in a seat pocket, but I don’t think that the thought was, “hey, we might need to shoot this thing down, let’s get some fighters up there”.

  18. I don’t understand the question posed. If it’s been determined an aircraft is about to be used as a weapon to kill hundreds or thousands of people, plus those on the plane, then of course the plane can be shot down. Those passengers are already doomed.

    And the legality question seems like an odd one considering all the time the US spent in Libya, illegaly.

  19. Your political blog posts (like this one and the others on TSA) are as exciting as seeing another pic of a wet towel in Ben’s blog:-)
    I skip them completely
    I guess others like them.
    It’s your blog of course and you can post whatever you like:-)

  20. What seems to be overlooked is the pilot’s reaction to a possible problem. To call it in and possibly get shot down over a camera or seat reclining problem, I think not! If shoot-down were ever to happen, I believe most pilots would think twice before endangering their passengers (and their own) lives by contacting anyone. Reports would be made after landing, if at all.

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