The Consent of the Governed – What the United Airlines Incident Says About Us (Part 2 of 2)

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” — James Madison, Federalist Paper No. 51 (1788).

In Part 1 of this article, I discussed the recent news story about United Airlines dragging a passenger off one of its planes. I acknowledged United’s poor handling of the situation and suggested alternative ways in which they might have managed it better, including bumping before boarding. But the real story here is not United’s mistakes. The true takeaway stems from the defiant passenger’s unreasonable behavior following the airline’s repeated requests that he comply with their policies and exit the airplane, and the public’s response to that conduct.

Public transportation by plane or other common carrier, like society itself, works because people agree to abide by a common code of conduct or social contract. We consent to being governed by certain rules and laws to maintain social order and protect our rights. Generally, we obey the law even when a police officer is not around to enforce it, because we understand that most laws are good for us and others. Because we want the benefits of an orderly society, we willingly forfeit our right to unlimited freedom and agree to obey those in authority subject to the rule of law. Some of those rules are written, while others are implicitly understood.

In the case of commercial air travel aboard a Boeing 747 jumbo jet, hundreds of people are crowded into a confined passenger cabin space. There is limited ability to move far or freely amidst the tightly arranged seats and narrow aisles. When passengers fly, they entrust their lives to the solid engineering and structural integrity of the plane, the quality of training, experience and good judgment of the pilot and flight crew, and the reasonable conduct of other passengers. A failure in any one of these components can be hazardous or fatal.

No man is an island to himself on a commercial airplane, nor is it a democracy. Structure, discipline, and compliance with authority are imperative at 35,000 feet. Because passengers want the privilege of traveling long distances quickly and safely, when they board an aircraft they understand and agree that they are expected to behave a certain way. Passengers must stay seated for most of the flight, comply with directions from the flight crew, and abide by certain behavioral guidelines. These rules are designed to keep the hundreds of mildly anxious people crammed into the plane as safe and comfortable as possible while hurling through the air at 500 miles per hour, six miles above the earth. If a passenger is rude, loud, or annoying it may be a long and unpleasant flight. But if a passenger refuses to obey instructions given by the pilot or flight attendants, and decides to do things his way, not their way, he poses a risk to himself and others.

A cramped 747 will become a significantly more dangerous place if passengers refuse to comply with the flying code of conduct, including obeying lawful requests by airline personnel, and instead become disruptive without considering reason or the welfare of other passengers.

While security officers should not have dragged this passenger off the United Airlines plane, in this day of terrorism and other threats tied to commercial airline travel, United’s enforcement action is understandable, if ill-advised. Still, this man should not have acted in the selfish, child-like manner that he did, causing hundreds of people unnecessary inconvenience, delay and trauma. If he had simply complied with United’s request that he leave the aircraft, which he was legally obligated to do, he could have prevented this unfortunate showdown and his own injuries.

While it is troubling that this passenger did not feel compelled to obey a reasonable request to obey those in authority over the aircraft, even more disturbing is that the public has not criticized his conduct in refusing to do so.

It is impossible for a nation to maintain the rule of law if its citizens do not respect the law. There are times when the law, a law enforcement officer or person in authority is corrupt and, in the interest of justice, appropriate resistance or civil disobedience is necessary and desirable to raise awareness, pierce the public conscience, and bring change. However, those instances are by far the rare exception and not the rule.  Getting bumped from a flight is disappointing, frustrating and inconvenient, but it hardly rises to the level of injustice or corruption justifying civil disobedience.

Society functions because people consent to be governed by reasonable rules that bring order from chaos and protect us from the unrestrained selfishness of ourselves and others. If every request by a law enforcement officer is met with an argument, ignored, or defied, outright rebellion and lawlessness will follow. When civil disobedience is no longer about achieving justice, but only about asserting one individual’s right to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, without regard for the rights of others, a civilized society subject to the rule of law must stand up and call it what it is: wrong.

If an airline official cannot get passengers on a plane to willingly comply with their reasonable requests, travel will grow increasingly dangerous, regulated and limited.

If we, as a nation, continue down this path of refusing to respect and submit to those in authority for any and no reason, simply because we can get away with it or because we don’t want to do what we’ve been asked to do, then lawlessness and chaos will come. Parents, teachers, airline officials, law enforcement officers and eventually even our military will have no control over their constituents. The terrible law of the land will be every man for himself.

“In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” ―Judges 21:25

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