November 05, 2003

Talk About Carry-On Baggage

Here’s a philosophical question: if someone breaks a law but no one knows about it, has the law been broken?

One kid decided to find out for himself. Feds recently busted a North Carolina college student for helpfully stocking planes with box cutters, small containers of bleach, strike-anywhere matches and clay molded to resemble high-level explosives. He admitted he committed this nefarious act in order to compromise flight security.

Wow! Guess I was wrong about opposing indefinite detentions for suspected terrorists; it looks like those secret interrogation techniques really work after all. Oh, wait. The culprit, a 20-year-old Maryland native, actually confessed it all himself in an e-mail to the Transportation Security Administration. Last month. Whoops!

Nathaniel Heatwole sent an e-mail to the TSA Contact Center on Sept. 15, 2003. In it, he detailed the smuggling of the paraphernalia on planes at both the Raleigh-Durham International Airport and the Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Between Feb. 7 and Sept. 15, 2003, he said, he outfitted a total of six planes with the lethal kits, the contents of which he described in minute detail.

Furthermore, Heatwole revealed the location of the plastic bags (under the rear lavatory sink) and admitted that he had put them there. His intent, as quoted by the affidavit, was to commit “an act of civil disobedience with the aim of improving public safety for the air-traveling public.” He then left his name, e-mail address, telephone number, and the number “3891925.” The latter number, his birth date backwards, matched the inscription on each bag. To ensure that the TSA would notice his e-mail, he entitled it “Information Regarding 6 Recent Security Breaches.” Just to be safe.

Still, no one seemed to notice anything was amiss until Oct. 16, when the pilot of Southwest Airlines Flight 474 reported trouble with the lavatory after landing in New Orleans. Fortunately, a maintenance check brought everything into the open. And not a moment too soon: no one wants to fly in a plane with a broken toilet. Things like that are hazardous.

I don’t know what to think about this whole case. Should authorities really bust this guy? It sure seems tempting, doesn’t it? It’s not as if they’ve nabbed one in a while. And yes, the kid, though bold, is an idiot. Did he really think the feds were going to slap their heads and say, “Gee golly, that young man sure got us on that one! Better luck next time?”

On the other hand, Heatwole’s action is hardly unprecedented. Why, back in the glory days of American journalism (1776-2001), we had news anchors sliding plastic UZIs through airport baggage checks, just to shake things up! Ah, the good old days!

Today most editorial meetings go like this: “Okay, how high are we going to jump today when our corporate masters bark at us? I say three feet. How about you, Johnson?”

“Three feet, Townley? Are you nuts? There’s a five-foot minimum in the south!” But I digress. Maybe if Heatwole had just said he was a freelance investigative reporter, he might not have been in trouble. Hell, he might have gotten his own series! Fox News could use that now.

With his admittedly vile act, Heatwole highlighted (no, hammered home) the failings of the post-9/11 flight routine that has apparently done little aside from inconveniencing travelers. And just think; in spite of everything, security agents captured Heatwole only because he told them to catch him. Last month.

No matter how you look at it, Heatwole has cojones of steel. But steel will give anyone a tough time at the airport checkpoint.

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