"One of the great goals of this nation’s war is to restore public confidence in our airline industry," Bush said, before announcing the government’s first big steps toward making that happen. Bush will introduce sure-thing legislation to:
"This nation will not live in fear," Bush said. "We have awakened to a new danger and our resolve is strong." A plane roared overhead, and Bush smiled. The crowd, which had been giving Bush party-faithful-style applause for his every line, broke into a chant of "U-S-A. U-S-A. U-S-A."
The cloud in the silver lining
Bush didn’t mention a decision that would have been a lot less easy to applaud that he has authorized two mid-level Air Force generals to order the shooting down of errant airliners without calling Bush first.
"If there’s time, we’d still go to the president," Air Force Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart, head of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, told the New York Times on Wednesday. "Otherwise, the standing orders have been pushed down to the regional level." All of which means that Maj. Gen. Larry K. Arnold, a two-star at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, can pull the trigger on a potentially dangerous commercial aircraft without even calling his boss Eberhart, much less Bush.
Not the kind of possibility you want to put in the minds of a crowd gathered at one of the nation’s busiest airports to hear the president tell them it’s safe to fly again. But a possibility nonetheless. In the hours after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush did give the OK to down any commercial planes that imperiled Washington, and for a while, news reports had it that the plane that went down near Pittsburgh that day had been shot out of the sky by the Air Force. (It turned out to be the efforts of passengers that brought the plane down short of its target.)
Are we really ready for this?
Citing security concerns, the Air Force won’t lay out a scenario for killing 150 people in the air to save others on the ground, whether they are the many such as with the World Trade Center or the few, say, in the White House. The tradeoffs between the life of a voter and the life of a public official or, for that matter, the numerological comparisons between innocents in the air and on the ground have never been publicly debated. Perhaps it is better that way.
Certainly countless lives could have been saved if the Air Force planes tailing the two WTC-bound airliners had fired away and put the debris in the Hudson River. The national trauma would have been greatly mitigated. But America, having averted the unthinkable, would then be left with something else a government with American blood on its hands. Such stains, however, may demand an accountability that Maj. Gen. Larry K. Arnold, a two-star at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, may not have the stature to offer.
But George W. Bush is thinking positive these days. He announced that nine Cabinet members would soon be taking to the commercial skies to make various appearances, and before getting back on Air Force One, he once again sought to keep the airlines and all the parts the economy that find themselves lost without them airborne by dint of transferred bravery. "With all these measures we are returning America's airlines back to the American people," he said. "We will not surrender our freedom to travel."
Now, about those flight delays…