Walter E. Williams bio photo

Walter E. Williams

Bradley Prize Winner 2017

Professor of Economics.
(703) 993-1148
D158 Buchanan Hall
Department of Economics
George Mason University

Related Sites:
The homepage of George Mason University.
Homepage of the Department of Economics at GMU.

Imagine you’re a munitions manufacturer, and you manufacture hand grenades for the military. Your contract requires a guarantee that 99 percent of the hand grenades delivered are not duds. What do you do?

If you assumed there was an equal probability of every hand grenade being a dud, you might test them by pulling the pin and tossing each hand grenade to see if, in fact, it explodes. You’d be certain about whether the hand grenades were duds or not, but you’d have none to deliver. A more intelligent method would be to test a representative sample to make inferences about the population.

You say, “Williams, what’s the point?” Let’s look at our Department of Transportation (DOT) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) mandates for air security. By their actions, they assign an equal probability that anyone who boards a plane is a potential hijacker, and that includes pilots and crew, the aged and infirm, and children and babies. That’s why they do body scans, make people take off their shoes and confiscate scissors, fingernail files, cork screws and other items on their “prohibited” list. This vision of anti-terrorism is both stupid and costly. Are there more effective means? How about taking a test?

At the 1972 Olympics, who kidnapped and murdered Jewish athletes? In 1979, the U.S. Embassy in Iran was taken over by whom? During the 1980s, who kidnapped Americans in Lebanon? In 1983, the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut was blown up by whom? In 1985, the Achille Lauro cruise ship was hijacked and a 70-year-old, wheelchair-bound American was murdered by whom? In 1985, TWA flight 847 was hijacked in Athens and a U.S. Navy diver was murdered by whom? In 1988, Pan Am flight 103 was bombed by whom? In 1993, the World Trade Center was bombed by whom? In 1998, U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed by whom? On Sept. 11, four airliners were hijacked and used to destroy the World Trade Center and the Pentagon; who were the murderers? U.S. military action in Afghanistan is against whom? Earlier this year, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and murdered by whom?

We all know the answers to these questions. The perpetrators were not the people who are routinely harassed and inconvenienced at our airports: businessmen, women, children and babies. The terrorist murderers have been Muslim male extremists between the ages of 17 and 40. That fact suggests that there are gains from ethnic profiling – namely, having security personnel on hand who’d be able to pull aside passengers who closely fit the profile of terrorists.

Why isn’t this done? There are several possibilities. First, the DOT and FAA don’t want to risk offending the politically correct among us. Second, it doesn’t cost them anything to harass and inconvenience millions of passengers. The third, which should never be excluded, is that the people who run the DOT and FAA are just plain stupid.

The latter is surely the case in terms of their decree not permitting pilots to carry weapons. For the most part, commercial airline pilots are ex-military men trained in weapon use. If randomly assigned sky marshals carry weapons, there is absolutely no reason, at least an intelligent one, why pilots should not be permitted, as well.

But here’s something for us all to think about: If the time ever comes when a commercial airliner is hijacked and headed toward a nuclear power plant, a bridge or a dam, and F-14s have to be scrambled to shoot it down, will the DOT and FAA bureaucrats be able to assure us that armed pilots would not have made a difference?