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 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 5:15 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 5:53 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 7:05 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT