Who’s In Charge?

Some of us can remember when taking a plane was a pleasant experience, even exhilarating. Those days, of course, are long gone.

It used to be — if “good old days” syndrome hasn’t played with my memory — that only well-dressed and genteel folks flew, and that airport and airline personnel were uniformly polite and helpful. These days, air travel is a largely unpleasant affair. Airports are crowded; cabins, even more so. Seats are too close together, and fellow passengers, as a result, occasionally surly. Professional staffs can be less than congenial. Flight delays are frequent. And then there are the “security measures.”

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, the TSA, or Transportation Security Administration, was established, and eventually made part of the DHS, or Department of Homeland Security, also created at that time.

Among the TSA’s 60,000 employees are the people who make passengers take off their shoes (good thing the “shoe bomber” hadn’t swallowed the explosives instead), pass through metal detectors and, in some cases, “pat down” shoeless passengers. They’re the folks who confiscate your water bottles.

And who, it turns out, according to a secret DHS “Red Team” report, managed to miss a good number of weapons and mock bombs smuggled past them, in 67 out of 70 tests. That’s a 95% failure rate.

DHS head Jeh Johnson initially played down that impressive percentage. “The numbers in these reports,” he said, “never look good out of context.” He declined, though, to add any context.

The TSA weapons scandal overshadowed a less-noticed earlier one, the revelation that the agency reported a large number of lost, stolen or missing security badges, along with uniforms and other devices used to control entry to restricted airport areas. Over two years, more than 1,400 badges reportedly went missing at one airport alone, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International. And 270 at San Diego International Airport. O’Hare International reported 336 lost uniform items over a similar period of time, and Philadelphia International, 253. Washington Dulles International lost 343 uniform items last year alone.

Yet, as incompetent as the TSA seems to have been, there have been no successful acts of air terrorism over the years since it was created. Now, what explains that?

Those of us who recognize a Higher Authority than the TSA know the answer. We realize that we are not to rely on miracles, and must employ hishtadlus, human efforts, to effect our protection. But we comprehend, too, that it isn’t our efforts in the end that yield our wish but, rather, the will of that Higher Authority.

The best-laid plans, after all, employing the most capable people, can result in disaster.

In 1980, then-President Jimmy Carter ordered a Delta Force operation to rescue 52 diplomats held captive at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Of the five helicopters that arrived at the staging area, one encountered mechanical problems, another got caught in a cloud of very fine sand, and a third suffered a cracked rotor blade. The mission was aborted. And as the copters prepared to leave, one crashed into a transport aircraft, destroying both aircraft and killing eight servicemen.

By the same token, challenges that, by all logic, would seem hopeless sometimes turn out unexpectedly well.

In 1943, after more than three years of German control of France, the Great Synagogue of Lyon continued to function. That Erev Shabbos Parashas Vayishlach, the Lyon Milice, the Vichy government’s shock troops, decided it was time to end the Jewish worship.

As noted in Butcher of Lyon by Brendan Murphy, the shul’s Rabbi survived the war and recounted how a member of the Milice quietly entered the rear of the shul that night during Kabbalas Shabbos.  Armed with three hand grenades, he planned to lob them into the crowd from behind, and to flee before the explosions. After quietly opening the door, he entered the room unnoticed by anyone but the rabbi, who was standing facing the tzibbur, and pulled the pins.

What the intruder saw at that moment, though, so shocked him that he froze wide-eyed in his tracks, barely managing to drop the grenades and flee. Several worshippers were injured by shrapnel but none were killed.

What had so flabbergasted the Nazi was the unexpected sight of his intended victims’ faces. The mispallelim had suddenly, as if on cue, turned around as one to face him.

The would-be mass-murderer had entered the shul precisely at “Bo’i visholom,” as the tzibbur turned to welcome Shabbos.

So, on your next flight, as you pass through that metal detector, remember that your safety isn’t really in the hands of the bored-looking TSA people monitoring it, but in an immeasurably higher place.