Was 9/11 safety precaution a flaw?

Updated 1:56 AM EDT, Sat April 25, 2015

Story highlights

Juliette Kayyem: Now we know co-pilot brought down Germanwings plane; this shows need for structural changes to post 9-11 security

She says airlines must devise new ways to allow secure access to cockpits; better evaluate mindset of pilots; rethink what is "terror"

Editor’s Note: Juliette Kayyem, a CNN national security analyst, is a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, a former assistant secretary in the U.S. Homeland Security department and founder of Kayyem Solutions, a security consulting firm. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) —  

So now we know. The Germanwings aircraft that crashed earlier this week was deliberately brought down by a co-pilot who had managed to lock himself in the cockpit as he set the plane on a course for destruction, according to officials.

We all wish it weren’t so, and the investigation, instead of looking at possible deficiencies of the plane, will now look to the co-pilot, who – by all accounts – showed no signs that this would be his horrific legacy.

Juliette Kayyem
Juliette Kayyem

The irony would be rich, if it weren’t so tragic. The locked door, the very mechanism put into place to protect the cockpit from unruly or dangerous passengers – made more secure in response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks – was used against a pilot who, for reasons still unknown, left the cockpit.

It may be too early to draw conclusive lessons from what has happened, but as this unfolds and before we begin constructing a narrative about the pilot that may be filled with rumors, innuendo and half-truths, there are structural issues to address immediately.

First, we have seen that there is a real risk of pilots bringing down planes. We have built no back-up plans into the secure cockpit programs. It might be necessary to devise secure and classified entry access passwords or electronic keys that are available only to both pilots or a pilot and the lead flight attendant. No system of security should rely on a single point of entry and while the post-9/11 security planning made sense then, it may have outlived the threat now.

Second, regardless of pilots’ backgrounds and ideologies, airlines as sophisticated as Lufthansa may need to implement more than voluntary stress-relief assessments. The zeitgeist of pilots is very similar to the military: tough, strong, with psychological challenges viewed as “sissy.” Perhaps airlines will need to guarantee that pilots who seek counseling will not be unjustly punished. And instead of sitting back and waiting for someone to approach counselors, regular and consistent check-ins might be necessary.

Finally, the “t” word. Before the news today, the Obama administration quickly rejected a notion that this was terrorism. And that may still be accurate. But as someone who has been a part of counterterrorism efforts, I am impressed with the French prosecutor’s honesty in a search for the right words.

This is obviously terrorism in the general sense to elicit fear in a general population, but whether it was done for some political or ideological reason (in the absence of any group taking credit, it does not fit the model of most major airline terror attacks) we still do not know. And it isn’t as if there is a national response that we can expect from Germany, such as going to war. Still, it clearly isn’t just suicide.

This is different. If there is some nefarious ideological motivation, this may be one of a few incidents where a “loner” is able to create massive, simultaneous deaths. Most lone wolf terror is almost always of low consequence. It may be that we are in an era when we don’t have the right words to describe the threats we face from loners with the capacity for mass casualties.

As Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr said, “If a person kills himself and also 149 other people, another word should be used – not suicide.”

And that honest assessment is what we heard today.

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