Last month, I visited Guatemala City. On the first morning in town, I took the car to the local gas station for a fill-up.
Five or six armed guards patrolled the station. Some carried guns in holsters; others had rifles and bayonets.
From the gas station, I went to the shopping mall. At the mall, dozens of pistol-packing guards roamed the parking lot and strolled up down the aisles of the various shops. Everywhere in Guatemala—stores, dentist offices and doughnut shops—armed guards are plainly in sight.
These guards aren't retired military men. Nor are they educated and trained specialists. These are young men, most of whom have never been to school, down from the mountains to the big city to earn $125 a month.
I asked a local official what would happen if, through some misunderstanding, I were shot and killed. The official replied that, since I am an American, an investigation would be opened. But, the official quickly added, the investigation would be closed before the day's end. The guard would keep his job and the incident would quickly fade from view.
To leave Guatemala and return to the U.S. where a heated debate about whether airline pilots should be armed is quite a transition.
Frankly, I don't see the issue. The pilots want to be armed and the public supports the pilots. The House of Representatives, by a vote of 310-113 favors the pilots and the people.
What more is there?
According to U.S. Senator Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) and Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, guns in the cockpit are a bad idea. President George W. Bush, of all people, is said to agree with Hollings.
In May, Hollings introduced S. 2497 which would require the doors leading to the cockpit to remain closed and locked during flight. Hollings referenced El Al as an international airline that locks doors, doesn't permit firearms in the cockpit and hasn't had a hijacking in 34 years.
According to Hollings, the U.S. should follow Israel's example. But there is much more to the El Al policy that Hollings didn't mention.
First, the pre-flight security at El Al is much more extensive than anyone can imagine. Returning from Guatemala, my carry-on luggage was opened three times: at the ticket counter, the security checkpoint and at the gate. This level of fastidiousness is what awaits those who really want to copy El Al's system. Expect three hours to check-in.
Although El Al pilots are no longer armed, the airline has taken several other steps to thwart terrorism. El Al has placed hardened "man trap" double doors to the cockpit, installed hardened bulkheads and other classified defensive equipment.
El Al places an armed guard at the front of the aircraft. The guard has orders to shoot to kill if warnings to stay back are not followed. Several armed air marshals are strategically seated throughout the cabin. They too are instructed to shot to kill.
So while the El Al pilots may not have guns, as many as five or six trained marksmen on every flight are prepared to kill terrorists.
Hollings opposes guns because he fears that gunfire could shatter windshields that would lead to someone being sucked out of the aircraft. But, according to Captain Duane Woerth, President of the Airline Pilots Association, guns would be aimed backwards toward the door thus minimizing the possibility of bullets going through the window.
And, adds Woerth, if the in-flight situation has reached the crisis point of terrorists in the cockpit about to take control, then any other outcome — including gunfire — is preferable.
If, after all is said and done pilots are permitted to carry guns, then those like Senator Hollings who are opposed still have options. For those who think pilots are nothing more than "cowboys" or "renegades," as Hollings has suggested, they can drive, take the bus or train or take a cruise ship.
Traveling by any means is a crap-shoot. What legislation would have protected the Phoenix-bound Miami passengers from the allegedly drunken Air West pilots Thomas Cloyd and Christopher Hughes?
And armed pilots are nothing new. In the 1970s, Captain Stephen Luckey, Chairman of the National Flight Security Committee of the Airline Pilots Association, was trained by the FBI to use a weapon during flights. A rash of hijackings plagued the airline industry at the time.
I'm backing Captains Woerth and Luckey.
As for Hollings, he can go Greyhound.