Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Letting knives on planes would be insane

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Sun April 14, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: Napolitano will be responsible if decision to allow knives on planes brings disaster
  • Greene: Rule would allow blades under 2.36 inches. But knives were used in 9/11 attacks
  • He says airline workers and some lawmakers are opposed; Napolitano so far won't budge
  • Greene: What if an angry or drunk passenger loses control? The new rule is insanity

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War"; and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- How would you like to be Janet Napolitano on the day the first person is stabbed or slashed on a commercial airline flight?

Usually, it would be unfair to personalize the question like that; second-guessing a public policy decision after the fact is always easy.

But in the case of the dimwitted decision to lift the prohibition against passengers carrying knives onto airplanes, Napolitano, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, will be the one to get the direct blame if something terrible happens in the air, because she has been given ample notice that people who make their living flying think the idea is inexplicable and highly dangerous.

In early March, the Transportation Security Administration -- a part of the Homeland Security bureaucracy -- announced that it would soon allow knives with blades shorter than 2.36 inches in length, and no wider than a half-inch, to be carried onto flights.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

There was immediate outcry from members of Congress, pilots and flight attendants. Many people may have assumed that, because the decision was so nonsensical, it would soon be scrapped. But it hasn't been; April 25 has been set as the day when, for the first time since restrictions were instituted after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, passengers carrying knives will be permitted to board any commercial flight. Napolitano and the TSA have shown no inclination to reconsider.

It was passengers carrying blades, of course, who carried out the 9/11 attacks. But Napolitano has been adamant, even flippant, in dismissing the concerns about the wisdom of welcoming blades back onboard.

The Christian Science Monitor reported that, at a breakfast sponsored by that publication, Napolitano rebuffed the critics by comparing them to a comedic character once played by a popular actress in the early years of "Saturday Night Live":

"It's kind of like Gilda Radner, you know, if it is not one thing, it's another."

Napolitano's chief official at TSA, John Pistole, has said that by freeing TSA screeners from looking for small knives, they will be able to "better focus their efforts on finding higher threat items such as explosives." He also said: "A small pocket knife is simply not going to result in the catastrophic failure of an aircraft."

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Greene: Ebert's sheer love of life

U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm of New York -- he, like Pistole, is a former FBI agent -- recalled those blades (not explosives) that resulted in the 9/11 carnage, and characterized the refusal of Homeland Security and TSA to rethink their position as "borderline idiocy."

Grimm is wrong only about the "borderline" part.

Will every passenger with a knife present a danger? Of course not, and that isn't the issue. An infinitesimal percentage of passengers board a flight with deadly intentions. The enormously expensive and technologically sophisticated post-9/11 security measures are in place precisely because their presence is meant to deter those few passengers bent on destruction. Why would you possibly go to the trouble of electronically frisking everyone boarding a flight, and then wave the passengers carrying knives right onboard?

Small knives to be allowed on planes
TSA chief: Explosives are bigger threat
What a pocket knife could do on a plane

Last week, members of the Association of Flight Attendants handed out leaflets at large airports around the country, asking for the public's help in trying to convince Homeland Security and the TSA to change their minds. The association said: "The people on the front lines of aviation security know that allowing knives on planes is a bad idea."

And the Flight Attendants' Union Coalition released a letter from the family of Sara Elizabeth Low, an American Airlines flight attendant killed on 9/11. The family addressed the letter to TSA Administrator Pistole:

"We are astounded by the lack of understanding and thoughtlessness that this terrible decision reflects. ... The terrorists have to be laughing at how naïve our government continues to be. ... For the safety of flight crews, passengers and those potentially affected on the ground, please reconsider this terrible decision. Take a page from the doctors' oath and 'first do no harm.'"

The plan to allow the knives won't even speed up the airport screening process. Try to imagine the scene at the front of the lines, as already overworked TSA agents are forced to take tape measures or rulers and gauge the length and width of knives, as travelers insist their blades are shorter than 2.36 inches or that they aren't more than a half-inch wide. Try to envision the arguments that will ensue.

So stubborn is Homeland Security and the TSA about refusing to reconsider the new policy that officials -- why they would choose to say these things out loud is incomprehensible -- are rationalizing their knives-on-planes initiative by publicly declaring that other items onboard could also be used to harm passengers and crew: "If you are talking about a small knife, there are already things on a plane that somebody can convert into a small, sharp object," Napolitano said.

Summer is coming, and with it flights that are jammed to capacity, passengers who are irritable and hot, delays that make blood pressure rise. It won't even have to be a terrorist -- just a drunken, enraged or emotionally disturbed passenger who has been given permission by the government to bring a knife along with him.

Napolitano, at that Christian Science Monitor breakfast, was quoted as saying that it was the handling of the announcement of the new rules that was the problem: "Where we could have done better, quite frankly, was a little more legislative and public outreach before we announced the decision. Try to give it a softer landing, as it were."

She couldn't be more wrong. It wasn't the handling of the announcement that was the problem. It wasn't a lack of "public outreach." The problem was -- and is -- the policy itself.

A policy that will -- unless Congress or the White House steps in -- put knives back into the hands of air travelers before this month is out.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 1:10 PM EDT, Sat April 19, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT