"The greatest threat to freedom, even in today's perilous times, comes from no foreign force. It comes from the dangerous habit many of our leaders fell into over several generations -- letting the power and the resources that are the basis of freedom slip from grass-roots America into the hands of a remote central authority."
-- Ronald Reagan, 1982
In this age of terrorism, power and resources no longer slip into the hands of central authorities, as President Reagan warned two decades ago -- they are unabashedly snatched by leaders who claim to be promoting security.
Consider the Bush administration's ban on general aviation at Reagan National Airport. Before Sept. 11, 2001, the airport handled about 175 general aviation (private planes seating fewer than 20 passengers) flights a day. After the terrorist attacks, the administration closed the airport to private planes, except for a handful authorized to carry government officials. Signature Flight Support, the company that services general aviation at National, has lost millions of dollars since then. Many of its employees have lost their jobs, and citizens are denied access to a public facility -- all because of edicts from the Bush administration, which has no direct jurisdiction over the airport.
In 1986 Congress transferred control of National and Dulles airports to Virginia and the District. The two jurisdictions then created the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority to operate the airports. The executive branch always has had theoretical control of the airports through the Federal Aviation Administration, but no other president has interfered in their operations. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush went so far as to voice publicly the possibility of permanently closing National.
After Virginia's congressional delegation went to the White House as supplicants, Bush decided to allow commercial flights at National to resume gradually. But general aviation within a 15-mile radius of the Washington Monument is still prohibited. Has anyone pressed officials to make their case that the risk justifies such a restriction?
General aviation is a hard sector for terrorists to infiltrate because it consists of a small group of people who know one another. Airfield operators know their pilots; pilots know their passengers. National drew a particularly safe crowd because it was never popular with recreational fliers. Its pre-Sept. 11 clientele were mostly business travelers -- CEOs who schedule flights in advance and have professional pilots with security clearances.
Yet federal officials seem oblivious to these facts, according to David Wartofsky, owner of Potomac Airfield in Fort Washington. Potomac Airfield is the home base of many planes used by government agencies and flown by high-level military pilots -- who now are being vetted by low-level agents from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). "Probably 98 percent of our pilots have top-security clearance," says Wartofsky. "They're cleared to a higher standard than the TSA people standing around watching them."
Even governors are considered suspect by the Bush administration. To be eligible for a waiver to fly into National, a governor's pilot must undergo federal security screening, and the governor must be accompanied by sworn law enforcement officers -- the better to restrain a chief executive suddenly seized by terrorist impulses. Do the luminaries who think governors can be trusted with a National Guard but not with a private plane really represent the best minds available to judge the safety of general aviation?
None of the restrictions the administration has imposed prevents terrorists from taking off from fields or deserted highways and flying into restricted airspace. But even in that scenario, the threat would be minimal.
A jet loaded with 17,000 gallons of fuel traveling 600 mph is a flying bomb. A small plane carrying 50 gallons of fuel puttering along at 100 mph is not. At 2,500 pounds, a Cessna weighs less than half as much as a Ford Explorer. When a deranged pilot crashed a stolen Cessna into the White House in 1994, he killed himself and mangled his plane but barely nicked the president's residence.
So where are Virginia's leaders, who should be defending the airport's interests? Why don't they demand that the administration stop hampering a local industry by trumping a local authority?
The administration's usurping of power and resources is not justified by the risk. Reagan understood what Bush does not: Centralized power is the real threat to freedom.