The recent United Airlines fiasco reminded me of Canadian columnist Mark Steyn’s point that the reason the 9/11 terrorists were able to subdue three enormous aircraft full of people was because air travel is as close to a regulated utopia America has ever created.
People are treated like children no matter how many flights they take. Everything on an aircraft is organised by the tightest regulations. As a passenger, your only job is to buy the ticket and sit still. In case of emergency, do nothing and wait for the authorities. The safety lessons are, as Fight Club said, the airline’s way of assuaging the fear of flying – an illusion of safety.
But on 9/11, those docile passengers followed the rules perfectly despite the fact that in front of them stood sweating, nervous men armed only with craft knives. They all died as a result. However, the passengers on United Airlines flight 93 ignored those rules. Whether those few brave individuals thought they were saving lives on the ground or their own necks doesn't really matter. What counts is they acted as individuals because the system had failed them in the only way that matters.
That fourth aircraft, the one that crashed in Pennsylvania, is the exception that proves the rule. As Mr Steyn notes in America Alone:
“The first three planes were effectively a flying European Union, where the rights of the citizens had been appropriated by the FAA’s flying nanny state. Up there where the air is rarefied, all your liberties have been regulated away: there’s no smoking, there’s 100% gun control, you’re obliged by law to do everything the cabin crew tell you, if the stewardess – whoops, sorry – the flight attendant’s rude to you, tough, if you’re rude back, you’ll be arrested on landing. For thirty years, passengers surrendered more and more rights for the illusion of safety, and, as a result, thousands died.
“On the fourth plane, Todd Beamer and others reclaimed those rights and demonstrated that they could exercise them more efficiently than government. The Cult of Regulation failed, but the great American virtues of self-reliance and innovation saved the lives of thousands: ‘Let’s roll!’ as Mr Beamer told his fellow passengers.”
This week shows quite clearly, I think, how airlines haven’t evolved much over the intervening years. If anything, they’ve added more regulations. The intelligence scooped from a Special Forces raid in Yemen now means passengers can’t take laptops aboard aircraft travelling from a group of suspected countries. Everyone accepted this as fine. No problem, keep moving.
Water also needs to be requested in silly little cups, for exactly the same reason: intelligence suggested bottled liquid could be explosive precursors. So to continue the illusion of safety, airlines began regulating how passengers can drink the most fundamental building block of life. No one questioned this either.
Now a 69-year-old man flying the same airline as Todd Beamer was dragged off a flight because the staff made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. The flight was apparently booked to capacity, but a few United Airline staff members needed to be aboard. A randomised selection of passengers was chosen and offered hundreds of dollars to vacate their seats.
One doctor refused because he needed to get to his destination, presumably for emergency medical reasons. But those droning, robotic flight attendants were on auto-pilot, and the decision was made to force the man off the plane using police officers. Not other flight attendants. Police officers. Think about that. Also, those officers saw nothing wrong about doing this. Think about that as well.
United Airlines chief executive Oscar Munoz says while he is “upset” to hear about the event, the airline crew had simply been following “established procedures.” I’ll let that sink in.
The first thing you might ask is: why didn’t anyone volunteer in the doctor's place? I’m sure a few people did put their hands up to offer, but why didn’t they insist? And why didn’t the flight attendants change their minds?
If you’ve read any Solzhenitsyn the answer should be clear. Everyone was following rules. A catastrophically unethical action was taking place, and no one did a thing. I’m sure these people will scream indignantly that they are not bad individuals. But they are wrong, I saw the videos. Please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying the plane was full of evil people. I am saying being on that plane turned everyone into a moral monster.
I don’t care if a policeman says the rules are clear. I don’t care if five policeman demand you sit back down and do nothing. I don’t care if the seatbelt light flicks on and your pupils have already dilated in calm obedience. Rules do not, and should never, obviate the reality of following a moral injunction. And you know what those are.
God may be dead. But none of us is willing to shine a torch into the abyss to see just how abyssy it is. Those authority figures and regulations serve one purpose: to forgive you for the sin of staying quiet. “It’s not my fault, that’s just the way the system works.” Well, 20 million Ukrainians would disagree.
Forget the easy criticism of asking the staff to take the next flight. Did anyone stop to think why they couldn’t just grab a few pillows, tie blankets together as a makeshift seatbelt and sit at the ends of the aisle? They wouldn’t even have to sit on the aisle, blocking everyone’s path. There’s always floor space in these modern jets.
But that would require independent thought and, horror of all horrors, a circumvention of regulations to make something work. Sure, there’s a legitimate fear of a lawsuit. Is that really worse than beating a man and dragging him from the plane, though? Didn’t think so.
There’s something about the way air travel represents the pinnacle of state control that makes this docility and banality of evil inevitable. The doctor paid for his seat. He submitted to the regulations. He gave up all his rights. Still the authorities, following nothing more than those damn regulations, tore him away. Because according to the system, at no point did anyone do anything wrong.
The only thing a person owns, regardless of environment, is the ability to act in line with their moral intuitions – in the teeth of consequence.
You can’t see it, but the problem is religion. I doubt the majority of passengers believe in Jesus, and yet to a person, they all deferred to signals of the Omnipotent Other, broadcast as it always is by the semiotics of uniforms, regulations and certifications plastered throughout airport terminals and right there on the backs of the reclining seats. That power you see is the state – and it owns your soul.
Because of their belief in the Omnipotent Other, the passengers voluntarily gave up their individuality while performing a cell-phone ritual of absolution in real-time for their inaction. A camera won’t protect your soul. The guilt always stays with you. Always. It never goes away. Never. You have to let it motivate you to change your life. You have to become the kind of person who stands against the hurricane of regulations to scream “Stop!” You have to become a better person.
That's one interpretation, anyway, but I am telling you now, it is the only one that will save you.