Passengers Fight Back

A brave traveler saved Northwest Flight 253 from a terrorist. So why isn’t the government teaching us how to leave our seats and fight?

In the section “ For Travelers” on the TSA Web site, there are tips on how to speed through airport security lines, hyperlinks to Web sites that sell approved luggage locks, and a list of prohibited carry-on items that includes meat cleavers, cricket bats, cattle prods, and throwing stars. As far as I can tell, however, the people meant to protect us from terror on the airlines provide no advice about what passengers should do if a terrorist plot begins to unfold aboard their Boeing 737.

What I hope Friday’s incident on the Amsterdam-Detroit Northwest flight taught us—if we forgot after September 11, 2001—is: once an airplane takes off, it is the passengers themselves who assume responsibility for thwarting attempts to hijack or destroy it. I am not alone in sizing up fellow travelers, or being pleased to see that my flight includes a traveling hockey squad, or imagining how a guy with a box-cutter might be disarmed. Nor am I alone in observing that ever since “let’s roll,” airline passengers like the ones who thwarted shoe bomber Richard Reid have performed rather well as civilized man’s last line of defense, despite having to make things up as they go along.

Whatever air marshals are taught would likely prove useful to passengers as often as the federally mandated instructions on what to do in case of a water landing or what to do if you see a suspicious suitcase in the terminal. So why isn’t anyone telling us to fight back?

Despite near consensus among Americans about what passengers confronted with a terrorist should do, we all somehow know that a federal agency would never endorse a vigilante action. We’re treated as passive wards of a state endeavoring to keep us safe, rather than as meaningful partners in efforts for our own safety. Besides, think of the liability!

Our volunteer armed forces, professionalized police force, and designated first responders are national accomplishments, but a free people should never forget that, ultimately, it is everyone’s responsibility to carry out basic functions that ensure survival in emergencies. We should all be ready, however unlikely it is that any one individual will be forced to fulfill those roles.

So how about it, TSA? Having seen what can happen when airline passengers take a “give the man with the weapon what he wants” mentality, isn’t it time to make explicit what most of us know? The young man who tackled the terrorist aboard that flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, Jasper Schuringa, isn’t just a hero, he’s someone who fulfilled a duty that all the passengers on that flight owed one another.

“We had to do something,” he told Good Morning America. That sums things up, doesn’t it?

In a dangerous situation, not everyone can muster the bravery required to subdue a terrorist who is still on fire, but strengthening the norm that we’re ultimately responsible for protecting one another can’t help but make the average person more prepared.

The TSA instructions could be given by a computerized voice pre-flight. After noting that electronic devices should be shut off and revealing which Sandra Bullock film is scheduled, it would slow its cadence for emphasis. “Acts of terrorism should be met with the immediate and furious resistance of every passenger,” it would say. “Subdue the terrorist using any means necessary, especially your fists and teeth, remembering that his eyeballs, nasal cavities and testicles are especially vulnerable to attack. And if his underwear is on fire… well, there’s your silver lining.”

Conor Friedersdorf, a Daily Beast columnist, also writes for The American Scene and The Atlantic Online's ideas blog.