The Flyover Debacle: Head(s) Must Roll

Earlier this week, people in lower Manhattan and Jersey City were panicked by the sight of a jumbo jet flying at a very low altitude, apparently being pursued by a jet fighter. The airplane made a pass around the southern tip of Manhattan, near Ground Zero, making unusual turns and changes in altitude. This sight sent workers and residents from around the area into the streets, generating a rush of calls to the 9-1-1 emergency line and creating fears that another planes-as-bombs terrorist attack was underway. As it turned out, the jumbo jet was one of the planes that is sometimes used as Air Force One, and the purpose of the flight was to "update" the military's photos of the plane with New York City in the background. Incredibly, the people who approved the flight ordered the New York Police Department and other responsible entities not to tell the public in advance that this was an exercise.

If this sounds to you like a perfect example of why research organizations must, post-Milgram, consider the consequences of experiments on human subjects, you would be half right. Not telling people in the New York area that an event eerily similar to the 9/11 attacks was about to occur would qualify as something that should almost certainly be ruled out on the grounds that some forms of mental anguish must not be visited on the unsuspecting public. The problem is, when institutional review boards consider whether to allow experiments on humans, there is at least something on the other side of the ledger, something good that might come from observing the effects of an experiment on its unaware victims. Even gruesome human rights violations like the Tuskegee Experiments had a claimed justification that the results would advance our knowledge of the effects of syphilis on humans. In the New York City flyover, the justification for the event includes nothing that could even begin to suggest a benefit from secrecy. In fact, as NBC's news anchor Brian Williams points out, this could have been a very public event with broad and positive coverage, along the lines of an air show, with people coming out with their children to see Air Force One for perhaps the only time in their lives. Instead, it was treated as a secret so important that New York's authorities were threatened with the loss of federal funds if they allowed the public to know about it.

I lived in Northern New Jersey and Manhattan from summer 2003 through summer 2007, and I have had loved ones living in New York City for all of my adult life. When I lived there, the daily normalcy of life was always accompanied by the sense that something could happen at any second that would plunge the world into chaos. A power failure in Fall 2003, a Blue Angels flyover in 2006, an explosion on the Upper East Side in 2007, and other events always brought to mind one question: "Is this terrorism?" Once lodged in the psyche, the fear of another attack is not easily shaken and is quite readily stoked.

When I was a judicial clerk in 2002-03, living in Oklahoma City, I experienced a similarly panicked moment. With Oklahoma City having been the site of the second most deadly act of terrorism on U.S. soil, and with the federal courthouse where I worked being located directly across the street from the bombing site, terrorism was never far from my mind. At one point, I had been ill for a few days with the flu and thus had not been paying attention to any local news (which I tended to ignore anyway, given my temporary resident status and the demands of the clerkship). One evening, as I was trying to recover from my illness, I started to hear helicopters flying overhead. Then I heard jets, then explosions. I stumbled outside to see what was going on, and I saw my neighbors wandering about in (what appeared to me to be) similar confusion. After another few minutes of escalating sounds of chaos, I gathered my pets and went to the basement, trying to imagine what was going on, who could be attacking from the air, and how to get out of town. I have never felt so terrified.

As it turned out, this was an elaborate fireworks display that was meant to celebrate the state's equivalent of Independence Day. Even though it turned out to be a reasonably well-publicized event, I have always thought that it was a fundamental error to use military imagery in a celebration among a population that would include shut-ins who remember all too vividly the 1995 attack on the Murrah Building. My confusion might have been merely due to unique personal circumstances, but how many people are we willing to ignore in the name of a good show?

President Obama has said that there will be an investigation into this week's grotesque and incomprehensible decisions by the U.S. military. I must say that this is an instance in which Obama's famed equanimity grated on me, since he almost appeared to be amused by the whole thing. The man who authorized the debacle has taken Rumsfeldian "full responsibility" and continues to hold his job.

It is common in situations where we unmask failures in government or business to demand that people lose their jobs, or at least are demoted and publicly shamed. Too often, public outrage is turned into near-vigilantism; and I certainly give President Obama credit for deflating outrage over the AIG bonuses last month, given how crazy the public (and Congressional) response had become. Investigations and full process are clearly appropriate here, and there is no reason to fire someone quickly just for the sake of firing them. Still, it would take an enormous surprise in this story for this not to be a firable offense, once the facts are in. Even good, qualified people can make career-defining errors, and this seems to be such a case, based on what we currently know. If we are ultimately told that this was simply an "unfortunate error" or some such double-talk, we will know that justice is not being served.

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan