Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Always Trust a Criminal

Jerry Stratton, September 9, 2002

Prior to September 11, 2001, the official advice of the United States Government was to trust hijackers. That’s not how they worded it, of course. The word was “co-operate”. The unspoken assumption was that hijackers were trustworthy people. If they said they were taking the plane to Cuba, then that’s what they meant to do, and you should just sit back and enjoy the unplanned vacation. You should certainly not do anything so dangerous as attack them.

It seems silly, now, to claim that criminals are trustworthy, but we still make that assumption in many parts of the United States. We recognize that self defense is a good idea on airplanes, but only with pillows and F-14s. We haven’t followed that lesson through to its logical conclusion. We still like to think that criminals are trustworthy. We see this in our laws, such as gun control laws, that outlaw effective self-defense. Here in California we even outlaw effective pepper spray. Ironically, just two months before the September 11 attacks, the FAA rescinded rules allowing airlines to allow pilots to carry arms aboard their planes. It was largely symbolic, as no airline allowed their pilots to join the program.

The problems caused by outlawing effective self-defense go deeper than firearms, as September 11 showed. No firearms were used in the attacks, and no firearms were used in the defense.

Self defense has always been an individual’s responsibility to their community. Stopping a criminal saves the lives of all the innocents who that criminal would have killed if the victim had chosen not to resist. One effective self-defense can save tens, hundreds, and even thousands of lives.

Encouraging individuals to stop criminals makes them take responsibility for their own defense, and saves the rights of all those whose rights would have been lost creating the police state necessary to keep passive victims from attack. This has always been true, but September 11 slammed it in our faces: among those four flights, the only attempt at self-defense failed, but it was far from ineffective. The initial victims died, but uncounted lives were saved by their “failed” self-defense.

President Bush said, “We go forward to defend freedom, and all that is good, and just, in our world.”

There have been and will continue to be lots of band-aids applied to this incident; lots of attempts to remove the freedoms that were part of what these terrorists hate about the United States, thus giving in to them. It is the openness and freedom of expression in the United States that makes us their enemy. We can only gain true victory if we apply the strengths of our freedoms to reduce the chances of this ever even being attempted again, without implementing the very restrictions that these criminals want us to implement. Removing freedom might be able to dissuade attackers from being successful in the short-term, but they will find ways around them and then their victims will be all the more unable to foil them.

We can only achieve victory by increasing freedom in the face of such attacks. We need to restore the American virtue of self defense.

In my editorial Necessary to the Security of a Free State, I wrote “Even if you assume that a knife is better (when everyone is disarmed, a knife will be extremely effective for mass killings as well), you are assuming that suicidal killers will opt for less effective mass-murder weapons rather than more effective mass-murder weapons.”

We reap what we sow. This is yet another example of how removing freedom to gain safety gained us neither freedom nor safety.

I wrote that “if individuals are discouraged from taking responsibility for their own defense, or denied the right to do so, we will see the public demand that police be given more power to defend them instead The fourth amendment will go first.”

We reaped that as well. Almost immediately following September 11, our representatives put forward old, failed proposals at limiting our freedoms. None of those proposals to limit freedom were new; but now, after seeing that previous limits on freedom had failed, we demanded to them that, to defend against terrorist attacks by a tiny group of minorities, we should crack down on as many minorities as we can get our hands on. We started arresting, even holding without arrest, immigrants of Arabic descent, in many cases seemingly without any cause whatsoever. And we removed all of their rights to counsel, to a fair trial, to any trial. All in the name of a safety that such police-state tactics can never give us.

These terrorists used knives. They could do so for two reasons: the pilots had been disarmed, and the passengers have been taught never to resist assault. They’ve been taught to rely on others for their self defense. In one plane, they did resist. They died, but that plane did not kill the thousands that the other three did. The terrorists used knives to gain access to more effective mass-murder weapons, and because the victims had no defense, their plan worked in three out of four cases.

Effective resistance, effective self-defense, even when it fails, can still save others. Our FBI statistics tell us this, but we still recommend passivity in the face of criminals. We pretend that it is somehow “right” to acquiesce to criminals if they tell us we won’t be harmed. If they’re “only stealing”. It’s only property, after all. In other words, they’re trustworthy. If they tell us they’re just here to steal, we’re to assume they’re telling the truth.

I wrote a book about this, It Isn’t Murder If They’re Yankees, which ironically started off with the 1993 World Trade Center car bomb. In the novel, a rural schoolteacher discovers that her choice in letting an attacker go—merely chasing him off instead of shooting him—results in others dying around her, and she has to come to grips with her responsibility for their deaths. Would it have been right for her to kill her attacker while he was attacking her? All reasonable people will say yes. Would it have been right for her to kill her attacker while he was running away? Was it right for her, after realizing that her leniency killed other innocent victims, to chase down and try to kill her attacker well after the fact? I suspect most people would say no but that’s the policy we’re relying on for these and future terrorists. We are expected to let the criminals go, and then (through the police) to chase them down later, while they are continuing their killing spree.

Pilots are already requesting to be allowed to carry their self-defense weapons aboard their planes. Even more important, from the standpoint of fighting Middle-Eastern fundamentalist terrorists, is to allow the rest of the flight crew, if licensed, to carry. Because sexist or not, the majority of flight attendants remain female. Imagine the blow to a Taliban-supported terrorist to be stopped, not just by an armed American, but by an armed woman. Do not underestimate the power of embarassment to stop criminal attacks. (The silliest part of the Bush administration’s opposition to armed pilots is that the Bush administration has already made it clear that they will use fighter jets to stop a hijacking. But where an armed pilot might stop a hijacking without bringing down the plane, a fighter jet never will.)

The most embarassing, long-lasting response we could give the terrorists would be to have them beaten by free citizens. To have those hijackings foiled, not by military response or law enforcement, but by armed flight attendants, or even by unarmed American passengers that’s something terrorists have not yet seen, by dint of not operating on American soil. The first terrorist that tries to take over a Texas restaurant is in for a big surprise; we need to make our airlines as dangerous for terrorists and as safe for passengers as a Texas restaurant.

Unfortunately, if the next terrorist attack is as well thought out as the Trade Center attack, they won’t take over a Texas restaurant; they’ll take over a New York restaurant or a DC restaurant, or worse, a school. Because like airline pilots, neither teachers, professors, nor administrators at our schools are allowed to carry their self-defense weapons on campus. Even in Texas. The potential number of terrorist victims is huge; the potential for effective resistance is very small.

We also have to learn the other lesson of September 11: that what looks like ineffective self-defense really saves lives. What if all four planes’ passengers had defended themselves against what they thought was a mere hijacking? And the hijackers, of course, being willing to die for their cause, crashed the airliners into the ground? With hindsight, we know that this would have been a partially successful outcome thousands of lives would have been saved at the cost of the passenger’s lives.

The captain of Flight 594 learned these lessons. On September 19, a week after the attacks, one of the first flights left Denver International, and he gave these pre-flight instructions to his passengers:

“Sometimes a potential hijacker will announce that he has a bomb. There are no bombs on this aircraft and if someone were to get up and make that claim, don’t believe him.

“If someone were to stand up, brandish something such as a plastic knife and say ‘This is a hijacking’ or words to that effect here is what you should do: Every one of you should stand up and immediately throw things at that person pillows, books, magazines, eyeglasses, shoes anything that will throw him off balance and distract his attention. If he has a confederate or two, do the same with them. Most important: get a blanket over him, then wrestle him to the floor and keep him there. We’ll land the plane at the nearest airport and the authorities will take it from there.”

“Remember, there will be one of him and maybe a few confederates, but there are 200 of you. You can overwhelm them.

“The Declaration of Independence says ‘We, the people’ and that’s just what it is when we’re up in the air: we, the people, vs. would-be terrorists. I don’t think we are going to have any such problem today or tomorrow or for a while, but some time down the road, it is going to happen again and I want you to know what to do.

“Now, since we’re a family for the new few hours, I’ll ask you to turn to the person next to you, introduce yourself, tell them a little about yourself and ask them to do the same.”

Peter Hannaford, in the Washington Times, wrote that “If only the passengers on those ill-fated flights last Tuesday had been given the same talk, they might be alive today.”

And they would. But only because one of them would have reported the pilot and the flight would have been grounded until a new pilot could be found.

Yes, in retrospect, if airline passengers had been given that advice before September 11, thousands of lives would have been saved. But would we understand? We wouldn’t have had the benefit of hindsight in that case. We’d be more likely to believe that the passengers provoked the hijackers into turning a simple hijacking into a desperate suicide mission. We’d look at the results of Flight 93 and cry, “266 people dead because they tried to defend themselves when their lives weren’t in danger”.

Would we ever have imagined the real purpose of those hijackings if we hadn’t seen it happen?

No. We would have decried the senseless vigilanteism “rampant” in the United States; we would have said that the U.S. cowboy mentality “killed 266 people”; we would have considered laws forbidding passengers from resisting hijackings; and even some parents of those 266 would have said, publicly, “I wish he hadn’t been so headstrong; he might still be alive today.”

Because we say the same thing today about firearms ownership, about resisting rape, resisting robberies, resisting assault. We claim that some things aren’t worth defending. We claim that victims who resist “will only have their firearms taken from them”. That owning a firearm for self-defense “only increases the chance that you’ll die.” Only criminologists and a few in the self-defense movement are aware of the research showing that these commonly-held beliefs are patently wrong, that self-defense with firearms saves lives, that firearms ownership reduces violent crime in general. The rest of us measure “lives lost” from firearms by counting lives lost from criminal attack and comparing it to lives lost by criminals from successful self-defense. We don’t count the lives saved from successful self-defense in which the criminal ran; and we don’t count the lives saved, even in an unsuccessful self-defense attempt, because the criminal no longer had the life, physical capacity, or desire to attempt further crimes and perhaps escalate up the ladder from property crime to murder or rape.

Remember Bernhard Goetz? A racist man defended his life with a firearm against four youths armed “only” with screwdrivers. They were “merely” trying to rob him, according to media accounts afterwards. He fired on them, injuring them all, and disabling one, who later successfully sued him. But the other three youths who weren’t disabled and didn’t sue? James Ramseur is serving 25 years for a “brutal rape-robbery”. Barry Allen is now out of jail after having robbed an elderly diabetic. And Troy Canty also continued his career as a thief until disappearing completely; the police have no idea where he is now, but suspect he died in a drug deal. It is reasonable to believe that the only reason Darrell Cabey didn’t continue his crime spree is because he was disabled by Bernhard Goetz. But our statistics don’t count that. They focus on a criminal permanently disabled because he “only” tried to rob another man. Did Ramseur gain compliance from his rape victim by telling her “she’d be all right”, that it was “just a robbery”?

The mother of Cabey’s next victim doesn’t know that her child was saved by a racist with a firearm.

Just as, if Flight 93 had been the only flight taken by hijackers, we would never know that thousands of lives were likely saved by the passengers’ unsuccessful attempt at self-defense. We’d be calling for laws making it illegal to resist hijacking attempts. We would be calling to make the pre-September 11 advice to trust hijackers not just advice, but the law. To make disobeying a hijacker a crime.

If we fail to defend ourselves against a “property” crime, are we responsible when the criminal later kills? Should we take the responsibility to defend ourselves when we know a crime is being committed, because this will reduce the occurrence of violent crimes in general? Even though, in the short run, it may put our own life in danger? Even though, if we are successful, we will never know how many lives we have saved?

If we can do so, we will gain not only a freer society, but a safer society. We will save untold lives, and we will drastically reduce the demand for curtailing civil liberties, drastically reduce the demand to crack down on minorities. There would be no demand to round up law-abiding Arab immigrants, no pilots kicking Arabic FBI agents off of their planes. And as we’ve seen from September 11, a culture of personal responsibility for defense not only holds the potential to promote peace domestically, it also holds the potential of promoting peace internationally. Acts of terrorism that fail are less likely to result in the widespread disorder that successful terrorist acts can cause.

All it takes is that we learn that we shouldn’t trust criminals, and that self-defense is always the right thing to do. It’s a hard lesson to learn, because we don’t want to learn it. We’ve always known this in our hearts. Research that we’ve tried to ignore has proven it. Now we can no longer hide from it. Personal responsibility is frightening, but abdicating it is too dangerous.

And this is not just a call for effective self-defense. What we’ve learned is that even ineffective self-defense is good for the community. Effective self-defense is just better.

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