What the Test Might Look Like
Imagine this scenario: The helicopter hovered at 1,500 feet, a half-mile from the crowded North Street Beach. Those below didn't think too much about the sightseeing chopper, on this bright, sunny day. Suddenly, the rotors slowed. Without warning, the chopper's nose dropped and it spun wildly out of control into Lake Michigan's cool waters below.
Sunbathers on the beach pointed with alarm and promptly flooded Chicago's emergency 9-1-1 circuits. Within minutes, fire trucks and ambulances made their way to the crowded beach.
Just a few minutes later when panic was beginning to subside, a twin-engine plane roared low over the Lake, no more than a hundred yards or so from where the helicopter had disappeared. Without warning, the plane turned sharply inland toward Michigan Avenue's Magnificent Mile.
A loud boom suggested that the plane, perhaps loaded with explosives, struck a high-rise. Indeed, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel had been hit between the 33rd and 34th floors.
People helplessly watched as other twin engines planes, most laden with explosives, crashed into still more buildings, Navy Pier, Nieman Marcus, the Drake Hotel and still other sites. Up and down Michigan Avenue smoke pilloried into the sky as rescue workers and firefighters fought to control the situation.
For years, I have contemplated the possibility of a terrorist attack using small planes laden with explosives. I had lived ten years in Chicago, most of it along the Lakefront near the Hollywood Beaches further north on Lake Michigan.
Now I am concerned that this fictional scenario is all too real. For three years, I was a consultant with the Department of Homeland Security on first-responder grants�money to fire and police departments to respond to emergencies and mass casualties. Soon, this program looked like pork to me with local governments buying equipment that should have already been in their arsenal.
While emergency responders have more to do, there is no shortage of viable scenarios for the next terrorist attack. Our borders are too porous and scores of would-be terrorists are here organizing into cells. That we know.
The Department of Homeland Security's Transportation Security Administration has done much to tighten security for commercial aviation. Once again, we respond to the last crisis rather than addressing future challenges. Security for small (general aviation) airports is very weak and remains so. Planes are allowed to take off and land without flight plains�often with no government contact at all.
Many planes have keyless entry and push-button ignition. Within 30 minutes of flying time of Chicago there are hundreds of aircraft that could be commandeered by terrorists. It would take only a handful of planes to create havoc in Chicago.
The Department of Homeland Security has proposed increased scrutiny only to be shot down by the Airline Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). I wrote about general aviation security for The Washington Post two weeks after 9/11, only to come under vicious attack. These 21st Century cowboys pilloried my reputation and hired a lawyer to investigate my background. The lawyer reported that I was pretty clean and that I was a decorated Marine -- but one with �service in the mud� and not in the air.
AOPA opposes any measure to secure general aviation airports and to secure private aircraft.
Senator Barack Obama might be our next president, and his vice presidential candidate, Joe Biden, has warned that a President Obama could be tested early. That test could come in the form of the kind of attack I have outlined here.
Clearly, the best way to defeat terrorists is to confront them where they live, but that doesn't mean they still can't make it to us. We have more to do, and the time to do it is now.