Lasers and Lunacy

Two weeks ago, in what was intended to be a preemptive snuff of a burgeoning spark of hysteria, I discussed the implausibility of terrorists using laser beams to down a commercial airliner. Unfortunately, lasers are back in the news again, now getting full attention of the major press and television networks.

In the past week, no fewer than eight aircraft are said to have been targeted. These include a Cessna executive jet preparing to land at Teterboro, New Jersey; a SkyWest commuter plane approaching Medford, Oregon; a jetliner at 8,500 feet above Cleveland, Ohio. On New Years Eve, a beam was aimed at police helicopter over Trenton, New Jersey.

Back in mid-December, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security passed along a memo stating that terrorists had explored the viability of deploying high-intensity lasers as weapons. The alert came after several earlier incidents of rogue beams penetrating flight deck windows. In the most serious case, last September, the first officer of a Delta Air Lines jet suffered a burned retina after being struck in the face during approach into Salt Lake City.

While these events are perplexing, and at least potentially dangerous, a presumed link to terrorist activity is, if impossible to discount, premature and wrongheaded. Alas that’s a bit like whispering into a hurricane here in 2005 America, where the T word has been spliced into the very DNA of our collective societal psyche. Thanks to one day’s events more than three years ago, we’ve come to exist in a full-on reversion mode in which every anomaly that’s at once potentially harmful and not instantly solvable takes automatic cover beneath the dark cloak of “terrorism” — a paranoid pathology that shows no sign of relenting. We’ve concocted an upside down religion, choosing to invest our faith in the cunning of an invisible adversary while disparaging our own voices of reason and good sense. At heart it’s an old story, fear of the unknown, taken to new and self-destructive heights in a politically charged climate.

This time it’s lasers, ushering us to the verge of a fear-storm of, dare I say it, Jacobsenian proportions. The reference is to Annie Jacobsen, the writer for Women’s Wall Street.com whose July, 2004 account of sharing a flight to Los Angeles with a clutch of hyperactive Syrian musicians inspired a summer-long crusade by reactionary pundits and talk show hosts.

A primer for those who missed it: The musicians, so went the theory, were in fact a team of terrorists engaged in a covert rehearsal — a so-called “dry run” — for a September 11th sequel. Other operatives, it was claimed, acting alone or in similar teams, were actively staging dry runs on flights all around America.

This was based on absolutely nothing but the crudest speculation — mainly accounts of dark-skinned people seen acting “suspiciously” aboard planes. No matter, within weeks Jacobsen was addressing Congress and the word was out: the terrorists are everywhere, coiled like vipers around every turn, and it’s your patriotic duty to be as frightened and suspicious as possible.

Jacobsen, whose byline now credits her as an authority on terrorism and air safety, hasn’t yet tackled the laser story, and the jingoist rage machine hasn’t got its script down. But give it a little time; fear is a tricky thing to cultivate, and there are still some dots to connect. That plane over Cleveland was hit by a ray emanating from the 90 percent black suburb of Warrensville Heights. Perhaps there’s a Pakistani cabdriver or family of Syrians living in town.

Authorities plainly admit there is no credible evidence of a specific terrorist plot to acquire or deploy lasers, a disclaimer carried by most published news articles covering the latest incidents. The DHS/FBI memo from December was one of 160 bulletins released during the past two years, and cited nothing more specific than terrorists “exploring” laser attacks. Just as they’ve explored the use of nuclear weapons, biological weapons, guns, knives, car bombs, plastic explosives, and so forth. “We have no specific, credible information, said DHS spokeswoman Valerie Smith, in a report carried by the Associated Press, “suggesting that such plans are underway in the United States.”

Sadly many Americans haven’t much appetite for healthy or informed skepticism. “It’s not some kid,” voices Paul Rancatore, speaking in a report disseminated around the country this week by UPI. Rancatore is deputy chairman of the security committee at the Allied Pilots Association, the union representing crews at American Airlines. “It’s too organized,” he warns.

Sounds like our dry run perps all over again. Tired of getting dirty looks at 30,000 feet, apparently, they’ve opted for ground-based maneuvers. The more you read, the more you stumble across the identical words and concepts used to seed last summer’s mongering: things are “organized” and “patterned.” The terrorist-laser supposition relies on precisely the same hooks — it’s spooky, pandering to overanxious imaginations, and maddeningly impossible to completely disprove.

“It sounds like an organized effort to cause airline accidents,” says Loren Thompson, professor of military technology at Georgetown University, speaking in the same UPI story as Mr. Rancatore. “What we’re talking about is a fairly powerful [laser]. That’s not the sort of thing you pick up at a military surplus store.”

Thompson doesn’t address the targeting of several noncommercial aircraft, and law enforcement officials maintain that the types of devices used are readily for sale, frequently employed in concerts, light shows, civilian construction work, and numerous other industries. Federal guidelines restrict the use of lasers to below certain altitudes, but such rules aren’t easily enforced, particularly in areas with airports — and low-flying aircraft — nearby. My own encounter with a high-intensity ray occurred early 1990s during an approach into Newark. Skirting the lower edge of Manhattan along the Hudson River, a wayward (perhaps intentionally so) beam from a light show atop the World Trade Center caught and tracked our turboprop briefly, filling the cockpit with a fiery incandescence. Police believe the beams that hit the Cessna jet on approach to Teterboro came from a shopping mall.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and The Civil Aerospace Medical Institute, one finds a docket of hundreds of laser events over the years, victimizing both civilian and military aircraft. Records at the NTSB cite more than 50 laser irradiations taking place around Las Vegas alone in a two-year span between 1993 and 1995. Ten years later a similar spate — albeit one less purely accidental; most likely the work of copycat pranksters — becomes a small-scale national security crisis.

And if there’s one thing each of those hundreds of events has in common, it’s a zero fatality rate. Crews have been left disoriented and in some cases injured, but not once did an airplane crash. “In certain circumstances,” reads the December DHS/FBI alert, “if laser weapons adversely affect the eyesight of both pilot and copilot during a noninstrument approach, there is risk of airliner crash [sic].” Technically that’s accurate (if grammatically strange), though the “noninstrument approach” reference is only partly relevant. Conspicuous in almost all analyses of this weird brouhaha is a presumption that approach and landing are the ideal time for such an attack, when in fact takeoff would be the more opportune moment. But the key to grasping the improbability of a laser inducing a crash, one needs to understand those “certain circumstances.”

Hitting two pilots squarely in the face through the refractive, wraparound windshield of a cockpit would be extremely difficult and entail a substantial amount of luck, and a temporarily and/or partially blinded crew would still have the means to stabilize a climbing or descending airplane. Surviving even a worst-case attack would be challenging, but not impossible.

To accept the proposition that terrorists are behind these events is to assume that gangs of al-Qaeda operatives are hunkered down in neighborhoods throughout America, openly risking capture in their attempts to test out obvious, traceable devices that even when used accurately are exceptionally unlikely to bring forth an accident. I submit that terrorists do not undertake operations with such high probabilities of exposure and failure. They have little to gain and everything to lose. With respect to bang for the buck, why waste time with lasers when you could hide in a patch of trees with an assault rifle and inflict greater damage?

Admittedly, however, what you wouldn’t inflict is the twisted flavors of angst and paranoia that arise from the notion of terrorists migrating to less orthodox, ever more insidious methods of attack. Bombs and skyjackings are historically the weapons of choice, but they don’t carry the sci-fi cachet of laser beams, which are in fact less dangerous, yet perceived to be more threatening. One school of thought proposes that terrorists have no desire to knock off a plane with lasers; only to scare us into thinking they do.

That’s giving them too much credit, frankly, and we’re plenty capable of keeping ourselves good and scared. In the meantime, our reaction to terror tends to be a quantum leap ahead of reality: iris scanning, biometric coding, elaborate plans to fly planes out of harm’s way by remote control. I remember, as a high school freshman, going to see the movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” There’s a scene in that film — and forgive me if my recollection is slightly off — where the fleeing Harrison Ford is suddenly confronted by a, evil, scimitar wielding barbarian about three times his size. The beastly monster-man proceeds to roar and grunt and flip his giant sword around, by all accounts ready to dice Ford into a million quick pieces. Ford nonchalantly reaches into pocket, takes out a pistol and shoots the man dead.

Listen to Michael, an Airbus A320 pilot for a major US airline who asks to be kept otherwise anonymous: “Here we have cleaners and caterers able to board and roam through aircraft with no security screening whatsoever, yet people are worried about laser beams? Our priorities are insane.”

“In the hierarchy of threats,” adds a 747 first officer at a different carrier, “this one is pretty far down the list.”

Where to begin on that hierarchy, or just how upended those priorities are: At most American airports in 2005, passengers and their hand luggage receive only token screening for explosives. Flyers must surrender their metal sharps, yet aren’t specifically searched for the most likely and dangerous terrorist weapon of all. Meanwhile, a pilot cannot bring a fork onto his own jet, yet caterers, cleaners, and ground staff can step aboard free of scrutiny. It wasn’t laser beams or knitting needles that downed two Russian airliners last August. Or Pan Am 103 for that matter,16 long forgotten years ago. We’re expected to believe saboteurs would spend thousands of dollars on sophisticated lasers when a few cheap ounces of Semtex would be immeasurably more effective?

That isn’t to say we’re living dangerously, and it’s important to note the past three years have been the safest in civil aviation history. Whether our good fortunes have come because, or in spite of, our security mindset is arguable, but either way it underscores the astonishing safety of flight, even in the face of cheap, destructive technologies and legions of sworn enemies. But if we insist on being neurotic, and if we’re that eager to dump billions of dollars into the maw of a terrorism-industrial complex, should it not be done as rationally as possible, with a sense of what is outright foolish?

Where is the outrage? Where is Annie Jacobsen and the talk show rabble rousers? Where is ABC, NBC, and the proud nationhood of online bloggers? If a security issue doesn’t include some creepy conspiratorial overtones, they don’t seem interested in talking about it.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.