So who failed?
The Florida flight school that allowed a 15-year-old to board an unattended plane? Or the U.S. military, unaware a teen-ager had flown a plane into a Tampa office building until after it hit? Should we round up the usual suspects, the teachers and family and friends who did not -- could not -- have imagined the worst?
The super-security that is now supposed to be everywhere failed superbly. But before that came the usual failure of common sense.
We now accept, as a matter of security, the necessity of removing our shoes before proceeding to the boarding gate. We cannot accept -- do not even propose -- that as a matter of sanity we should not have kids lifting off in planes.
I do not blame Charles Bishop for his pain, or for his adolescent confusion, or the sad and spectacular way in which he finally chose to reveal them. Before he flew into the office tower, Bishop merely inhabited that netherworld to which we condemn our youth. He was half-boy and half-man, the embodiment of our hopes and the repository of our fears.
He was, depending on which neighbor or teacher or family member you believe, one of two types. He was a loner who stiffly shunned even casual conversation with kids who tried to befriend him by complimenting his dog. This is the type who would eventually refer to his "enemies" in a suicide note.
Or he was an honor student, a writer for student publications and someone who could be depended on for help at bake sales and food drives. This is the type known for cleaning planes to earn his lessons, for wanting someday to enlist in the Air Force and serve his country.
On any given day, any given teen-ager might fall into one or the other category. That is what being a teen-ager means.
It is why adults still have responsibility for them, or are supposed to. The fact is, we don't take it. And then we wonder why they blow up themselves or their schools or perhaps fly planes into office buildings. Who failed?
Why do we still ask?
We demand ratings on the video games they play in the safety of the basement and on the movies they watch in the dark of the local theater. But before teen-agers may see an R-rated movie or sip a first legal beer, they are allowed -- encouraged -- to dare to do more. We never question why.
We let them fly planes. The Federal Aviation Administration requires only that pilots be 16 before they fly solo. Before that, a student pilot can be any age, so long as an adult pilot is aboard. That's why Jessica Dubroff, the 7-year-old who died in a 1996 crash while trying to become the youngest person to fly cross-country, was airborne.
We put them at the helm of motorboats. Seventeen states do not set a minimum age for operating a motor-powered vessel. Among those that do, the most common minimum age is 12.
And, of course, we let them have guns. Federal law requires only that people buying handguns from licensed dealers be 21, and that those buying rifles and shotguns from legal dealers be 18. Sales from unlicensed vendors or private individuals aren't regulated. A teen-ager possessing -- but not buying -- a rifle or shotgun is perfectly fine, the law says.
So, along with the CDs and the smelly gym suit, an American teen-ager can legally stuff among his stash a 50-caliber sniper rifle. It is a weapon known to have been at the Branch Davidian compound, feared by the FBI because its bullets could pierce the bureau's vehicles. It is a gun whose export the State Department now restricts, concerned it could be a weapon of choice for terrorists. But it is a rifle and so is legally acceptable, here at home, for teen-agers to possess.
There are adults who look back to that first afternoon on the lake when they were allowed out on the boat themselves, no grown-up around to crimp their style. Others recall a first hunting trip to the woods with their buddies, not Dad. These are idealized moments. They are memories worth preserving, not a meaningful basis for public policy.
When Jessica Dubroff's mother reacted to her daughter's death, she said she had encouraged the flight because the girl was pursuing "what America stands for." It seems, too often, to stand for the freedom to let kids endanger themselves and everyone else, too.
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