Franz Josef Jung, German defense minister, said he would think about ordering a hijacked airplane to be shot down. Controversy ensued (G).
I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that about 80% of the articles that appear in German newspapers are nothing more than Hofberichterstattung, as they say: reports of what famous or important people have said. The typical pattern is:
- Politician A says something controversial, which is reported in the press;
- Politician B says politician A’s comment was "outrageous" or "irresponsible";
- Politican C says something about what politician B said about politician A’s comment;
- Politican (or priest, or celebrity) D says something about what C said about B said about A’s comment.
- This goes on until about level P. Sometimes (yawn) until level XXX.
During all this time, various commentators and journalists write opinion pieces registering their shock, outrage, bemusement, or world-weary disdain.
What’s the driving factor behind all of these stories? Simple: you don’t need to leave your office to write them. You don’t need to go digging through some dusty archive, or find a disgruntled ex-government official willing to give a secret background interview, or fly to some baking-hot third-world country. It’s television and radio reporters who seem to do the most of this in Germany — that’s where you’ll find the most interesting and aggressive investigative reporting. But to be a newspaper journalist, it seems, you need only turn on your computer.
Like magpies spotting bright, shiny objects, journalists flit from one controversy to the next, barely stopping to think. For instance, the papers have already pretty much forgotten Jung’s comments and moved to the next pseudo-story: some Bavarian politician suggested time-limited marriages! (G).
Most of the controversies ginned up by magpie journalism aren’t very significant. A few weeks ago, for instance, everyone was talking about online searches of terrorist suspects’ computers. Few mentioned that these searches would take place by means of trojan programs attached to email messages that would be sent to the terrorist suspects. Perhaps I’m missing something here, but when is the last time you opened an attachment from a stranger? And how is this supposed to work when every terrorist smart enough to pose any danger is well-aware of the risk of electronic surveillance, and communicates only by leaving drafts of email messages on free internet email accounts at public computers?
The comments by Jung are similar. In what strikes me as empty posturing to attract security-minded voters, Jung said that he would authorize German fighter pilots to shoot down a hijacked airliner if he believed it was going to be crashed into a crowded area. He is not authorized expressly by law to do so. The German Federal Constitutional Court struck down such a proposal in a decision (G) of 15 February 2006, holding that the German Basic Law did not permit weighing human lives one against the other. Thus, the Defense Minister seems to be saying that he would contemplate an act that would seem to be illegal and unconstitutional.
But let’s ask another question. How likely is it that this will ever happen? First, hijacking airplanes has gotten much harder than it used to be. Second, the number of terrorists who nowadays are going to be able to visit flights schools long enough to learn how to fly an airplane into a building — without raising suspicions — is, I suspect, extremely low. Third, even if an airplane had been hijacked and fighter pilots could see in the cockpit that someone who was not a pilot was flying the airplane, that is probably not enough to justify shooting down a jumbo jet loaded with innocent passengers.
Even under the law that was struck down, the authorities would need some concrete indication that the hijackers intended to fly the plane into a crowded structure. How likely is it that the terrorists are going to announce their intentions? Remember, these would be terrorists who are smart enough to carry out a complex plot. They’re going to be at least as intelligent and disciplined as the 9/11 cell leaders. Probably even more so, since, in these security-conscious times, they would need to overcome many more hurdles to get to the point of a successful hijacking. Their goal would be to maximize the loss of innocent human life. They are going to be aware that if they announce their target, that target will be evacuated. This will reduce the impact of their horrible deed. Therefore, they will either say nothing, or announce to everybody that this is a "normal" hijacking and demand landing rights at some airport — and, at the last moment, veer off into a building.
If you were a politician, you would never authorize the intentional killing of 200 civilians unless you had strong proof that this was the only possible way to avoid much larger loss of life. Yet, if I’m right, the likelihood that you would actually get that proof would be almost zero. Therefore, this seems to be to a tempest in a tea-pot. It’s mildly interesting from a philosophical standpoint, since it’s basically a real-world example of the trolley problem, but its relevance to any world we will ever live in is (I hope) about zero.