A deep divide over safety in the skies

An interesting piece on recent problems over sky marshalls.

Relations between the United States and the rest of the world have hit another patch of turbulence in recent weeks over the issue of armed sky marshals. Many countries are deeply unhappy about new airline security requirements, and public anger against perceived American imperialism is again on the rise. Americans may be tempted to dismiss the concerns of overseas skeptics as emotional and ill informed, but underlying them shrill rhetoric are critical ideological divisions that the Bush administration will be hard-pressed to smooth over. International opposition to sky marshals operates on both a conscious and a subconscious level. It is not that the rest of the world is unconcerned about airline security. At the core of the conscious divide is the reality that Americans have a particular view of how best to provide security, and many in the world do not share that vision. In the aftermath of the Rodney King beatings and ensuing riots in Los Angeles, Americans had a rather dim view of their law enforcement officers. All that changed on Sept. 11, 2001, when New York City police officers and firefighters displayed courage and resilience, and were anointed as 21st-century American heroes. The result of a massive and entirely understandable upswing in public sentiment toward police was that that resulted in Americans regained ing confidence in the idea that armed law enforcement provides security, to the extent they now appear willing to accept that having airborne cops makes it safer to travel. Most Europeans disagree. They think that guns are dangerous, and that having guns aboard airplanes increases, rather than decreases, the likelihood of innocent people getting hurt. Accidental shootings could happen, and, in the worst-case scenario, a team of unarmed hijackers could overpower a sky marshal and find themselves with a bonus weapon in their hands. The divide in outlook is driven largely by historical experience: America was born of a culture that readily equates armament with security. The history of the United States gives it a level of comfort with firearms that most in the world do not share. Hence the lobby of British airline pilots opposed to flying with sky marshals on board. This is not simple anti-Americanism — it is a fundamental disagreement about what makes us safe. Unfortunately, a large part of the international community believes that the United States is making the world unsafe for everyone else. For some, the resentment against the sky marshals plan is driven by anger at the feeling that America is imposing its ‘‘war on terror’’ on the rest of the world. Despite recent Al Qaeda-supported terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Indonesia, Kenya and Morocco, there is still a strong feeling that ‘‘terrorism is America’s problem, not ours.’’ There is a also sense that, yet again, the United States is telling the world what to do. It is one thing for the U.S. government to place armed marshals aboard American airliners, but quite another for the Bush administration to push other countries to do the same, and then expect them to bear the cost as well. This whole issue has become ideological, rather than being a purely pragmatic risk assessment, because it touches a raw nerve. It is no longer just about security, but also identity. Guns, armed officers and heightened security measures are seen as elements of a uniquely American culture, which most of the world does not want to adopt. The problem, of course, is that the threat of global terrorism is real both inside and outside America. Unless there is a major attack on another Western target, however, it appears unlikely that historic U.S. allies will warm to the idea of sky marshals. In the meantime, only American passengers will feel like they are still flying in friendly skies. The writers are research analysts at the World Markets Research Center, based in London.