Friday, September 30, 2011

Can terrorists use model airplanes as weapons?

After the recent arrest of a man in Boston who has been accused of planning terrorist attacks on the U.S. Capitol and the Pentagon, plenty of questions have been raised. Which is always the case. But in this particular case, a lot of the questions are about model airplanes. Apparently the man arrested was planning to strap explosives to model airplanes, then fly the planes into buildings.

Headlines similar to the one with this article, "Can terrorists use model airplanes as weapons?," have become common during the last couple of days. I can't count the number of times I've read, "Could model airplanes become a terrorist weapon?"

I hate these types of headlines. I was a newspaper editor for 20 years, so I've got plenty of experience writing headlines. And frankly, nearly all of these questioning headlines are bad. For one thing, they are questions, not answers. For another thing, such headlines tend to lead readers in a particular direction. I only use a similar headline here to make a point.

If one reads down into the articles concerning the potential use of model airplanes as weapons, the truth is yes, model airplanes could be used as weapons, but not very good ones. Why is this? There are two reasons: 1.) Because model airplanes, even the really big and expensive ones, cannot carry much weight, which means the explosives that could be used would have to be quite small and not very powerful. 2.) Even for experienced experts, flying model planes is not a precise science; it would be difficult to fly a model airplane directly into a small target, such as a door or window or person, which would be needed to cause damage using smaller explosives.

If you don't believe the articles, check with a local model airplane club. Such clubs, though sometimes small in number of members, are practically all over the place. Go to a gathering and ask those present what they think.

But what really irks me about the questioning headlines for such articles is that their use is basically fear mongering, often caused by lazy headline writing. Please understand, I understand what headline writers are dealing with daily. Nearly all of them are overworked and underpaid. Nearly all of them do not have much time to write excellent headlines. Often enough headlines are slapped onto a story as quickly as possible, without much thought given to them. Plenty of people within the news media will not admit to this, but it is the truth.

What can be done? Honestly, probably not much. One could scream about holding the news media responsible, especially the corporations who create over-stressed work environments, but the truth is that would likely not help. The bean counters and the marketers aren't really going to pay much attention because they are too busy trying to figure out how much money they're going to make this quarter, how they're going to survive just a few more months or weeks because of the bad economy and the growing unwillingness of advertisers and consumers to pay for advertising and news content.

It's tough for the media right now, but that should not be an excuse.

So, back to the original question, can model airplanes be used for terrorist weapons? Well, of course they can. But just about anything can be used for a weapon. A stick. A rock. A balled-up wad of paper jammed down someone's throat. Anything. Even a newspaper.

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