DURHAM — The Transportation Security Administration's decision to excuse airline pilots from the enhanced screening that passengers now undergo is both understandable and an unfortunate missed opportunity.
Understandable in the sense that pilots are unlikely participants in a terror plot. Few would debate that proposition.
More unsettling, however, is the argument that even if the pilots did intend harm, their presence in the cockpit enables them to crash the plane without needing the weapons the new screening process is supposed to reveal.
Nevertheless, TSA Administrator John Pistole justifies the special treatment by citing his trust of the pilots. OK, but what about the flight attendants? Should we look askance at them?
And how about the military? Poll after poll shows them to be the most trusted institution in American society. The list of demonstrably upright citizens goes on: police officers, firefighters, doctors, nurses, judges, pastors, schoolteachers, bus drivers and many more. Fortunately, the roll of trustworthy people in our country is a long one. Should not more then be exempt?
The cruel truth is that from time to time we get nasty surprises about seemingly trustworthy people. Recall that an 88-year old man killed a security guard at the Holocaust Museum in 2009. Who would have thought an elderly man a threat? And if we are talking about trust, what about reports of intoxicated airline pilots? Ronald Reagan had it right: trust but verify.
Still, what is most unfortunate about the decision is that it represents a lost opportunity for the pilots to demonstrate real leadership.
In the military, the finest leaders look for opportunities to share the hardships of the led. By exempting themselves from what they want their passengers to tolerate, the airline pilots miss the chance to lead by example and build the kind of respect and esteem that would serve them well in a crisis where immediate obedience to their orders is so important.
Instead, by appearing to place a premium on their own sensibilities the pilots risk putting into people's minds the notion that at the moment of greatest peril they might act in their own personal interests and not that of the travelling public entrusted to their care. That could encourage passengers to adopt a dangerous, every-man-for-himself ethic that could play itself out catastrophically in a real emergency.
Both the pilots and TSA may soon learn that privileging a select few can generate visceral resentment. Of course, preferential treatment happens often, but it is still offensive to the egalitarian instincts of the typical American. Favoritism rarely builds the consensus and support that unpleasant but needed policies require.
Charles J. Dunlap is a retired Air Force general who teaches law at Duke University. He serves on the board of advisers for the Center for a New American Security.