One man: Stupid and brave

Nathaniel Travis Heatwole did a stupid thing. A very stupid thing. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t brave. And it doesn’t mean that it was wrong.

In case you don’t know who Heatwole is, the 20-year-old college student has become the latest thorn in the Transportation Security Administration’s side.

Over the course of eight months this year, Heatwole smuggled four different packs containing box cutters, matches and clay in the shape of C-4 blocks through two different airports’ security nets. He then left the packs on airplanes as evidence that our security – surprise, surprise – ain’t so secure after all.

That’s the stupid thing he did.

According to reports and an affidavit filed Monday by the Federal Bureau of Investigation with a U.S. district court in Baltimore, Heatwole knew the penalty for his actions when he smuggled the items through the Baltimore-Washington and Raleigh-Durham airports.

He even tried to get caught.

Heatwole left dated notes containing airport and flight number information in each pack. He signed each note “3891925.” TSA investigators eventually figured out the number is Heatwole’s birthday (May 29, 1983) in reverse.

But that’s where the problem comes in. Despites the breadcrumbs he left behind, Heatwole was not pursued, because the TSA never knew about the packs. Not even when Heatwole sent them an e-mail Sept. 15 revealing his ploy, complete with the subject line reading “Information Regarding 6 Recent Security Breaches.” It took the TSA, a post 9-11 agency, until Friday of last week to contact Heatwole.

In the e-mail, Heatwole called his scheme an “act of civil disobedience” intended to improve safety for the air-traveling public. He also said he was aware of the potential repercussions of his actions. He signed the e-mail “Nat Heatwole” and provided his phone number for the authorities to contact him.

That’s why what he did was brave.

Now, for his efforts, Heatwole has been charged with carrying concealed weapons onto an airplane and faces a possible, and highly unlikely, 10 years in prison. He should be charged and tried, because what he did was illegal. And it being illegal is why it was wrong.

This is why it wasn’t:

While trying to cover the TSA’s ass, deputy administrator Steven McHale was quoted in the Washington Post as saying “Amateur testing like this does not in any way assist us or show us where we have flaws in our system.” McHale also asserted what most people are happy to accept as the truth: that it is nearly impossible to stop 100 percent of contraband from getting through security.

U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio passionately scolded Heatwole in a press conference, shouting red-faced and emphatically “this was not a prank.” ” This was not poor judgment,” he said. “This was a crime.” He was so emotional, I though he was about to break down in tears for a second.

I think we can all understand why nobody wants this kind of vigilante testing to happen on a regular basis. But DiBiagio’s righteous indignation and McHale’s careful deflection doesn’t change the fact that Heatwole has done a public service, albeit in an inflammatory way, by pointing out a major glitch in our airports’ security: middle-class white boys.

But that’s another column for another time. For the moment, I hope a lot of people out there are thinking about what’s going on.

I’ve been damn-near strip-searched getting through security at Newark Liberty, and I would expect that Baltimore-Washington, given its strategic location, would be the same way. But for some reason, on at least one occasion in the last several months, it wasn’t.

I hope the TSA is figuring out how to get its act together. And I hope the government’s prosecutors can get their emotions under control. Heatwole should be made into an example, but the justice department has far more important things to do than pursue a crusade against a 20-year-old who reportedly rarely leaves his dorm room at the Quaker college he attends.

Finally, I hope President Bush can find enough time in his relentless campaign to take as many vacation days in one term as Ronald Reagan did in two to pardon the lad. What Heatwole did was wrong but certainly doesn’t warrant a prison sentence, much less one spanning an entire decade.