There was a startling sight off the foot of Manhattan this morning. A Boeing 747 trailing a fighter escort was seen making multiple low passes near the Statue of Liberty and many tall buildings in Jersey City. In response, some buildings in Jersey City and in Manhattan were evacuated, for fear another terrorist attack was under way. However, this wasn’t the case. The 747 was the backup plane for Air Force One, flying by New York City for an Air Force photo shoot. Apparently, the city had been made aware of the flight path by the Federal Aviation Administration. The NYPD acknowledged this, but also said that it had been barred from alerting the public. What were they thinking?
There’s still a fair amount of anxiety in the area over the possibility of further terrorist attacks. Low-flying jets are an unwanted sight in the city, and their appearance tends to make people think the worst, resulting in buildings being evacuated, etc. Commonsense would dictate that harmless, federally approved fly-bys would be something of which the public should be made aware. Instead, what this reeks of is over-cautious security procedures on the part of the Air Force, the FAA, and probably the Secret Service. The president’s backup plane was flying by New York. In their thinking, making its schedule public could invite terrorists to take a shot at it with an anti-aircraft missile.
Because the government feels the safety of a plane the president has never been on is more important than public peace of mind, we get the spectacle of jangled office workers pouring into the streets with pictures of falling towers and mangled bodies dancing through their heads. The possibility of panic in such a situation is very real. What if there had been a stampede near the entrance to one of those buildings, or on an escalator? On the news tonight we could be watching stories about people being trampled to death trying to flee a terrorist attack that never was. Such an idea is not far-fetched. A stampede could have been set off by something as minor as a door not opening and people feeling suddenly trapped, or somebody saying in jest that the plane was coming right towards the building. Meanwhile, the threat of the other Air Force One being knocked out of the sky by a missile is, and always will remain, miniscule.
Whomever was responsible for the unnecessary veil of secrecy surrounding the flight came dangerously close to inciting panic in New York City today. Congratulations.
This is also a larger symptom of the bunker mentality that has pervaded Washington since 9/11. Any walk near the Mall in our nation’s capital is a study of a government in hiding. “Stay Back” is the pervading message of Washington D.C. Not on official business? Then you have no reason to be here. The halls of power in our country are increasingly isolated from the public because of massive security measures. In many ways, this behavior has turned the culture of our government into a culture of irrational paranoia. They are almost too afraid to peak their heads outside for fear the sun may be too bright. Erring on the side of safety 100% of the time means that most of the time, security will be unnecessary and burdensome.
To be sure, tight security is not something New Yorkers are unfamiliar with. Any walk through Penn Station makes one feel like a suspected terrorist oneself, what with all the eyes watching, all the guns ready to shoot one down at the slightest provocation. But what was missing today was information. An informed public won’t think the worst. An informed public will watch the skies with no fear. And an informed public is far more valuable than some 747, even if it is the president’s spare ride.