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Slate's Chatterbox: The D.C. No-Fly, No-Shoot Zone


This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Yesterday's headlines remade today. The White House and the Capitol were briefly evacuated after a small plane wandered into Washington's restricted airspace around noontime yesterday, and it was not entirely an orderly process.

Unidentified Woman: Run! Run! No, don't stop!

Unidentified Man: Head south! Head south! Head south. Go down South Capitol Street!

(Soundbite of crowd noise; sirens)

CHADWICK: News coverage of the event, of course, focused on the paperback thriller question: What if the plane had hit the White House or someplace else? But Slate's Timothy Noah is more interested in a different question: What if the plane had been shot down and a piece of it killed him?


It could have happened. While two F-16s zoomed threateningly overhead yesterday, I was walking to the Metro to meet a 1 PM lunch date. I know this makes me sound like a narcissistic jerk, but bear with me.

The risk that falling debris from a downed plane would kill me, Timothy Noah, is vanishingly small. But multiply one self-absorbed dot on the ground by a few million, and you identify the paradox of Washington's homeland air defense. The risk that any given plane wandering into the flight-restricted zone will commit a deliberate act of terror is not acceptable. But the risk that the Air Force will kill one or more bystanders by shooting down said plane is infinitely less acceptable. This logic explains why the Air Force did not shoot down the Cessna. Instead, the intercepting planes got the Cessna--whose pilots turned out to be two innocent aviators who'd gotten lost--to land 50 miles away in Frederick, Maryland.

According to today's Washington Post, the plane was, quote, "close to being shot down," unquote. I don't believe it. Last June, a twin-engine Beechcraft carrying Kentucky Governor Ernie Fletcher inadvertently buzzed the Capitol. A general at the North American Aerospace Defense Command was reported by The Post to have come close to shooting it down, but he didn't. Back in February 1974, a flipped-out Army private named Robert K. Preston stole an Army helicopter, hovered over the White House for six minutes, landed on the South Grounds, flew off, then returned. The stolen helicopter did get shot at over the Mall by a Maryland State Police helicopter. Later, while it was hovering a mere 30 feet above the unoccupied White House lawn, the Secret Service shot at it and forced it down. But here's the nub: Neither the Maryland police nor the Secret Service fired on the helicopter at any time when its downing threatened the lives of any bystanders.

From this I deduced that the unacknowledged de facto procedure when a flying object approaches a major government building is, in almost all situations, to hold your fire. I applaud this exercise of common sense. In our democracy, my life, and yours, is just as valuable as the life of the president, or rather the vice president, since I gather the president wasn't there yesterday. But when I ponder that this reality must also be blazingingly apparent to al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, it makes me very nervous.

CHADWICK: Opinion and self-interest from Timothy Noah. He writes the Chatterbox column for our partners at Slate. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Timothy Noah