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What Does Nathaniel Heatwole Mean?
In Dissent, Number One Hundred and Thirty-Eight
by Brian S. Wise
24 October 2003Nathaniel Heatwole

Considering two things: That Nathaniel Heatwole broke very important laws, but also that he made a phenomenal point.

Nathaniel Heatwole is a 20-year-old junior at Guilford College, a Quaker college in Greensboro, North Carolina.  He’s not a Quaker himself but, according to the Associated Press, he “shares many of the tenets of their religion, including a belief in pacifism, according to a February 2002 interview with The Guilfordian, the campus newspaper.”  And like most 20-year-old college students, Heatwole seems to believe his point – whatever it may be at any given time – is the most important thing anyone can hear.
As far as is known from this distance, Heatwole’s grand causes before now have been largely symbolic.  When he turned 18, Heatwole fulfilled his lawful requirement to register with Selective Service by sending the service a blank registration card and a letter explaining his opposition to the system as a whole, on pacifist grounds.  A symbolic gesture on three counts: 1) If he was so opposed to the system, he could have refused to do anything at all; it’s unlikely he would have ever been called to the carpet for breaking that law, it being one of those laws very difficult, and time consuming, to enforce.  2) There hasn’t been a draft in 30 years, but 3) If a new draft suddenly came to be, the feds would get Heatwole if they wanted him.  One assumes Nathaniel Heatwole’s adolescence and early adulthood has been replete with spontaneous ideological fits of conscience badly disguised as cries for attention, and dismiss him as just another college kid with an inferiority complex.

Except that now Heatwole is on to something legitimate, namely gaping holes in airline security.  On September twelfth (one day after the second anniversary of the Tragedies, it should be noted, a time when you’d think screeners would be paying extra special attention), he managed to get past security at the Raleigh-Durham airport with box cutters, matches, bleach stored in sunscreen bottles and modeling clay made to look like plastic explosives.  The plan was to smuggle the items onboard a Southwest Airlines flight and hide them in one of the bathrooms.  That being successful, he repeated the task on September fifteenth at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.  Heatwole’s argument was that security in America’s airports is lacking.  (No kidding.)  The kicker: Heatwole sent an electronic mail to the feds explaining what he did and on what planes they could find the items, signing with his own name and phone number.

Despite that, it took nearly five weeks for the objects to be found, and even then the discoveries triggered only a brief heightened search of the nation’s 7,000 commercial planes.  Explained Deputy Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Administrator Stephen McHale: “Amateur testing of our [security] systems do not show us in any way our flaws.  We know where the vulnerabilities are and we are testing them …. This does not help.”  McHale is wrong, but what would you expect him to say, given the fact TSA was smoked by a 20-year-old political science / physics major?  That everything is functioning as designed?

Here we have two things to consider: That very important laws were broken, but also that Heatwole has made a phenomenal point.  To the first, you cannot take seriously the safety of the people and dismiss this as an amateur testing of security systems.  Had those been actual bomb making materials, and had Heatwole’s motivation been much more sinister, both those planes would have dropped out of the air and a few hundred people would have died (to say nothing of whoever may have been underneath the wreckage when it fell).  Would that have been a better time to see the inherent flaws that remain in the current system?

To the second, however, laws against this sort of independent testing exist and must be taken rather seriously, or else there’s no point in having them.  Laws govern certain types of behavior, even if we approve of the behavior or appreciate the way it taught us certain lessons.  The answer to the question – whether we should throw the book at Nathaniel Heatwole or pin a medal on his chest – is, we should do both, even if it’s a lighter book and a smaller medal than would otherwise be the case in individual circumstances.  Offering him some leniency, say in exchange for information and ideas, cannot be out of the question; we’ve been doing it with selected computer hackers for years.  At the end of the day, offer him a job with the TSA; a federal gig should be more than punishment enough.

Brian Wise is the lead columnist for IntellectualConservative.com.

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