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National Security: Airport security

Joe Boyles, Guest Columnist

Our state is reeling from the Friday attack at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood Airport which left five dead and six wounded.  These types of “lone wolf” attacks at places of mass-gathering are increasing; Israel just experienced a case where a jihadist drove a truck into a crowded market, mowing down a group of soldiers.

In Broward County, authorities have in custody the Puerto Rican shooter Esteban Santiago.  We know that he has a military background (National Guard); and that he boarded a Delta flight in Alaska bound for Fort Lauderdale with one stopover to change planes.  His one checked bag contained a 9mm handgun with ammunition.  When he retrieved his bag at baggage claim, he went in the men’s room; loaded his pistol and came out shooting.  Most of his victims were targeted with a close-in, single head shot.  Some were senior citizens arriving in Fort Lauderdale to catch a holiday cruise.

As this is being written, federal (FBI and Army) and state (Florida and Alaska) investigators are turning Mr. Santiago’s life inside out, doing a forensic investigation into every aspect of his life.  They have plenty to work with.  As a soldier, I can guarantee you there is an exhaustive paper trail, including medical records.  I’ve heard that he was recently discharged from the military with a General dismissal.  That means to me that he was discharged for cause, not sufficient to warrant prison, but certainly not commendable.

In the ensuing investigation, we’ll learn a lot about this killer to help prevent future attacks.  He’s done all the damage he can do; now we must learn how to protect ourselves from similar attacks in the future.  I’ve seen this investigative process play out before within the military where a postmortem high profile case is gone-over with a fine-tooth comb.   Apparently Mr. Santiago was known to both FBI and military authorities in some capacity as a problem prior to last Friday.  Did he “fall through the cracks” in some way that must be shored-up?

An important question will be, with his history, should he have been permitted to still possess a handgun?  Of course, he could have used another type of weapon such as a knife, hatchet, or hammer, but maybe without so devastating results before being stopped and apprehended by security.

Some may ask how he was able to bring along his weapon.  That is perfectly legal (under current rules) in declared, checked baggage.  Hunters do it all the time when they travel by air to and from their recreation destination.

Santiago’s murderous rampage took place in baggage claim which is a soft-target outside TSA screening.  The theory is that people can retrieve their luggage quickly and find transportation to their final destination after a tiring flight.

That may change as a result of this incident.  Just as airport screening began four decades ago (some of us can still remember when your ticket was the only screen onto a flight) and then really ramped-up after 9/11, don’t be surprised if our travel freedom through airports (and train depots) is further restricted.  Authorities and lawmakers will carefully weigh the balance between security and safety.

I first saw this at international airports in the early 1970s, first in Japan, and later in Israel.  In both cases, the first screening point was before you entered the airport parking lot, a mile away from the terminal.  That would likely add another hour (2 to 3 hours) to pre-boarding arrival at major airports.  That was what I experienced five years ago in Tel Aviv where the screening was intense and multi-layered.

This additional security will no doubt affect more than just the arrival sections at airports like baggage claim.  Think in terms of places of mass-gathering where large crowds assemble – stadiums, churches, rallies, metros, theaters, etc.

Also, think in terms of intelligence, identifying attackers (who use guns, knives, bombs, trucks, etc.  as weapons that can cause multiple injuries in crowded places) before they hurt people.  The Homeland Security apparatus must carefully look at this situation to (again) balance civil liberty versus public safety.

On Monday, the accused was arraigned in Federal court which is interesting.  Since his crime occurred in Broward County, I assumed he would be under Florida jurisdiction, but for whatever reason, he is in the Federal court system for now.  By the current evidence, this attack appears to be premeditated.

As in every case such as this, we have a lot to learn to protect our citizens from future attacks.  It will be interesting to see how the new Administration reacts to this terrible incident.

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