Demonstrating TSA futility by stabbing dead pigs with pens

An article in The American Journal of Forensic Medical Pathology entitled "Use of a pig model to demonstrate vulnerability of major neck vessels to inflicted trauma from common household items" describes all the ways you can stab people with stuff you're allowed to take through airport security, like pens and plastic knives.

Commonly available items including a ball point pen, a plastic knife, a broken wine bottle, and a broken wine glass were used to inflict stab and incised wounds to the necks of 3 previously euthanized Large White pigs. With relative ease, these items could be inserted into the necks of the pigs next to the jugular veins and carotid arteries. Despite precautions against the carrying of metal objects such as knives and nail files on board domestic and international flights, objects are still available within aircraft cabins that could be used to inflict serious and potentially life-threatening injuries. If airport and aircraft security measures are to be consistently applied, then consideration should be given to removing items such as glass bottles and glass drinking vessels. However, given the results of a relatively uncomplicated modification of a plastic knife, it may not be possible to remove all dangerous objects from aircraft. Security systems may therefore need to focus on measures such as increased surveillance of passenger behavior, rather than on attempting to eliminate every object that may serve as a potential weapon.
Use of a pig model to demonstrate vulnerability of major neck vessels to inflicted trauma from common household items. (via Schneier)

(Image: TSA Security Checkpoint, a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike photo from BillyPalooza's Flickr stream)


  1. I’m also about 99% sure that you could give someone a nasty cut – nasty enough to kill them if you go for the carotid – if you broke those little plastic cups that the AIRLINE gives you! Then if you’re flying something like Jetblue where they give you actual cans of soda, everyone knows that empty aluminum cans have extremely sharp edges if you flatten or break them…

  2. surely the bic tracheotomy is already an established part of western culture?

    the only answer is to fly naked. business class never looked so unattractive. ‘hello miss? may i downgrade my seat? please?’

    1. Well yes, but the generally you use a real knife to make the incision, and insert the pen to keep the airway open. You don’t just jam the pen into their throat.

  3. Well, I think TSA doesn’t so much filter for dangerous items, but for threatening items. Though it may be possible to kill a person with a plastic knife, it will be hard to hijack a plane with it.
    On the other hand, it may be close to impossible to kill someone with a plastic gun, but one could hijack a plane with it.

    1. @Philbert: “Well, I think TSA doesn’t so much filter for dangerous items, but for threatening items. Though it may be possible to kill a person with a plastic knife, it will be hard to hijack a plane with it.”

      We don’t have convincing proof, but I’m pretty sure the actual 9/11 events went like this:

      Hijacker: “I have a boxcutter, and I’m not afraid to use it”
      Passengers: “Hah. Yeah, right. You can’t cut anybody *that* bad with a boxcutter”
      Hijacker: *slash* *thud of body*
      Passengers: “OK, we’ll sit down.”

      Even stupid people in large groups can usually figure out that if it’s dropped one person already, it’s probably threatening. And if the guy managed to drop one person while not actually holding anything that is obviously threatening, stupid people in large groups are more likely to say “Holy Shit! He’s a fucking ninja with mad skillz” than “wow. Wonder how he did that with just a kleenex and an orange”…

  4. I suppose the point is keeping out items that are perceived as threatening, not just dangerous ones. If someone tried to hijack a plane by jabbing at people with a pen, I’m fairly certain most people wouldn’t hesitate before trying to overcome him. It would be different if he had a scary-looking knife.

  5. Of course. TSA security is a piece of rather expensive public performance art. But the public eats it up- “Do anything that will make us safer!” prohibiting 4oz containers of liquid, continuing to have people remove shoes- all this does NOTHING to improve safety of passengers or plane crew. They must appear to be doing something, so they train us to jump through hoops. “Increased surveillance of passenger behavior”- please! There’s no way that can be done without generating huge numbers of “false positives.” You might as well suggest anal probes. Bend over and smile! Have a nice flight!

  6. “Use of a Australian academic model to demonstrate vulnerability of uppity Australian academics to inflicted inconvenience from common legal harassment strategies”

    Hugs and Kisses

  7. ..Or you could fashion a Millwall brick from a NYTimes, break a credit card in half and slash, drinking straw through the eyeball, roll up a Skymall and crush a scull.

    The only way to fly safe is if the airlines hand out paper suits or fly naked with juice boxes sans straws for your meals.

  8. (Questions not to ask a TSA agent)

    Can I make a Millwall brick out of a NYTimes? Or maybe roll up a Skymall rag and bash your head in with it?

    I say fly naked or not at all! Mile high for everybody!

  9. I am dreading the day when a politician or someone connected with airport security at a senior level watches Godfather 3, and we will have to put our spectacles into checked baggage.

  10. What about people with the ability to kill someone with their bare hands? What about using your teeth to bite someone in the neck? Flying naked is not enough: we need to fly fly naked, gagged and bound.

  11. Oh, Alan beat me to it. Anyway, since it has been clearly established that a trained assassin can use any part of his/her body to kill or maim, the obvious step is to strip all passengers and then give them disabling drugs for the length of the flight. Actually, that might not be so bad after all.

  12. I suppose the point is keeping out items that are perceived as threatening, not just dangerous ones. If someone tried to hijack a plane by jabbing at people with a pen, I’m fairly certain most people wouldn’t hesitate before trying to overcome him. It would be different if he had a scary-looking knife.

    Since 9/11, I don’t think we’d allow our planes to be hijacked PERIOD. Even if it were guys with guns, I suspect a plane full of people would attempt to overcome them. I’d much rather take my chances with a bullet than with a 600 mph plane crash into a solid object.

    The point of all these restrictions is to protect against a risk that no longer exists. On 9/11, passengers were easily cowed. They thought it was in their best interest to wait things out. We’re smarter than that now. No asshole with a knife is going to take over my f-ing plane, especially since it’s now almost impossible to reach the cockpit in the first place.

    1. THANK YOU Patrick. That’s so absolutely true, I can’t believe we haven’t collectively clued up to it yet.

    2. I’m not so sure whether a planeful of passengers would bring down gun-toting hijackers anymore.

      A year or two after 9/11, sure. Everyone was remembering the heros who brought down that plane, everyone could see themselves as a hero. Nearly ten years on? People forget…

    3. It’s not the case that passengers on high-jacked planes used to be “easily cowed” — they were simply making rational decisions based on their estimation of risks. They weighed up the risks and likelihood of success of attacking the high-jackers, versus the annoyance of sitting in the plane on a runway for a few days while the hostage negotiators did their work.

      Because of the delayed timing of flight 93, the passengers on that plane knew that the likely “downside” had suddenly got much, much worse, and in that very different situation they made a very different decision.

      1. Just to clarify, “easily cowed” was another poster’s phrase, and I was taking exception to it, not saying it.

        My point was that people now would react differently (than those on the 9/11 flights other than 93), but that this is because we have information that they did not have (i.e. the fact that the course of action pursued by the passengers on United 93 worked better than other courses of action) and people learn from things like that.

        I guess that my point is that the strong impulse to resist (as seen in Patrick Austin’s defiant comment), coupled with the model of successful resistance provided by Flight 93, does more to keep us safe than confiscating people’s nail clippers does.

    4. +1. Absolutely. Bingo.

      The terrorists won. They terrified us into damaging ourselves worse than they could ever have damaged us directly — from economic damage to civil rights damage to international policy and reputation damage. I’m rather disgusted with our so-called leadership at the time for responding in terror, and the largest gripe I have with our current leadership is that nobody has yet had the courage to stand up, declare that we were all idiots, and put us back on a more realistic footing.

      Bah. Humbug!

  13. God forbid some Jet Li kung fu bastard gets on the plane. Somebody like that could take out everybody with his bare hands!

    i’m totally picturing the Jet Li vs the Japanese school from Fist of Legend, only with gory Rikki Oh gougings, dismemberings, and splatterings… on a plane. I better call my agent, i just came up with a badass movie idea!

  14. I’m fairly certain that this is all completely pointless. Of course you can inflict damage with all sorts of innocuous and easily available items. This isn’t news, is it? As for monitoring passenger behavior: from what I remember of the CCTV footage of the 911 hijackers, they were calm and collected – more so perhaps than other people who had just missed their connecting flights or discovered that their suitcases were on their way to Siberia by way of the Galapagos Islands. Modern air travel is extremely stressful sometimes, and I think monitoring passengers for signs of anger or fear is a complete waste of time. Half the population is to some extent afraid of flying, and the other half have just lost their luggage and are in a dim frame of mind. Finally, does anyone here think that a hijacking would actually work again in a post-911 world? Hijackings only worked in the past because passengers were willing to believe that if they sat quietly and did nothing, there was a chance that they might walk away alive. I think that expectation has largely disappeared. Indeed, it was clear to the passengers on United 93 that the hijackers meant for everyone to die. Is there anyone who honestly thinks that if someone tried to hijack a plane in this country today that the passengers wouldn’t immediately and forcefully resist? I know I would, and I bear a more than passing resemblance to the Cowardly Lion on the best of days. Seems to me this just a fairly pointless debate.

  15. If we would just fit all passengers with straitjackets before boarding the plane, we wouldn’t have to go through all this security theater!

  16. Actually, I’ve relied on pens since before 9/11 as one of the answers of what I’d do if there were a terrorist hijacking. The shoebomber was rendered inert by ordinary passengers holding him down, one by the hair. Of his head.
    I never bothered practicing with the pig model, have practiced stabbing a couple layers of cardboard. The recommended technique is more close fast sewing machine than long more easily evaded lunge. I’m not an advocate of everyone having guns, certainly not without restrictions, I do think a militia knowledgably armed with bics may lead to a safer society.

    How did we get 17 comments in without anyone using the “Pen is mightier than the sword” line.

  17. I flew JetBlue out of JFK last week (nice new terminal by the way). Immediately after leaving security, I walked though a restaurant on my way to my gate (open-air type restaurant) and all of the tables were already pre-set with metal dining ware. Metal knives, forks, etc. I could have easily, EASILY taken one, put it in my pocket, and gotten straight on my plane. No problems. Or, I could have bought an entire, full bottle of wine at the duty free shop and taken it on board. Thats a weapon and a half.

    TSA is a complete waste of effing time.

  18. Well, great. Thanks, Researcher Dudes, now the ultra-paranoids in charge of the TSA are going to ban all carryons and make you wear a coverall and shackles.

    Wait, that didn’t work on ConAir– CRAP we’re screwed.

  19. YEARS after 9/11 I flew out of San Diego. AFTER security there was a gift store that was selling 3 foot long Cast Iron decorative garden stakes -they’d make a formidable weapon and could pry open a cockpit door, I suspect. And I could buy a glass bottle of ice tea that probably could have been dangerous if you break the end off.

    I surprised there haven’t been more problems.

    1. Snow globes aren’t allowed. I just had to leave three of them behind (presents for my kids) because TSA couldn’t be sure what the liquid inside was.

  20. I’ve always felt safer knowing I could travel with knitting needles. Not only can I knit a sweater while travelling (which is about the only thing that makes all that waiting and sitting tolerable), I can rest assured knowing I can defend myself from terrorists with my circulars, via either stabbing or strangulation.

  21. Just remember: pens don’t kill people, people kill people. Once the TSA figures that out, they’ll realize confiscating water bottles and pocket knives is pointless and they’ll start monitoring and investigating people.

    That is assuming the TSA is actually interested in security and not just security theater.

  22. With a bit of training, you can kill a man fairly quickly with your bare hands. With no training, you can rip out his eyes.

  23. it would be trivial to get a home made glass or ceramic knife (or 6) onto an airplane.

    secondly – you could fuck up the entire airline industry with just *two* semi-simultaneous attacks within the airport itself. getting a handgun through the front door of an airport is also pretty trivial.

    bottom line: it’s all a bunch of retarded bull.

  24. The problem with the TSA is that they focus on looking for weapons when they should be looking for terrorists. A terrorist doesn’t need to bring any weapons aboard an airplane. They could use a pencil, an aluminum can, a shoelace, or their bare hands to kill someone. The Israelis look for terrorists and are pretty successful with airline security. The TSA will remain a joke until they correct this problem.

  25. Seems to me that the best approach to increasing security isn’t to add extra security at the airport but to add extra security to the plane itself. Creating a space free of seats or other obstructions where first class normally resides would effectively create a “deadzone” where a sky marshal would have time and space to react to an attacker. provided the hijacker wasn’t able to sneak a gun on board I’m thinking the advantage would definitely go to the sky marshal who neutralize all manner of broken wine bottle and bic pen.

  26. Don’t you have to be Matt Damon before you can properly stab someone with a pen?

    Also, RevEng: imagine a big bin full of confiscated people at a security checkpoint. That’ll never work…

  27. Patrick Austin is right– passenger attitudes have changed. I forget who the guy was, but one expert pointed out that anybody trying to hijack a plane with a box cutter now would be beaten to death by the other passengers within minutes.

    I also think that Flight 93 was an example that people will now follow if, heaven forbid, it becomes necessary. I don’t think it’s a matter of the people on the other 9/11 flights being “easily cowed,” it’s a matter of the passengers on Flight 93 coming up with the course of action that resulted in the best (least bad) outcome. People now know which course of action resulted in the best (least bad) outcome, and it’s human nature (a term I don’t use lightly or often) to follow that example.

  28. So… apparently I’m not the only one who sits around on airplanes fantasizing about different ways to kill the annoying people around me with common household implements?

    @Chris – yes, and so is everyone who’s commented on this thread.

  29. RevEng makes a good point – people kill people. The only solution is to ban humans from flight and send robot drones in our place.

    Perhaps these robots can also go to work for us, flying to our boring meetings and attending conferences while we stay at home eating, sleeping, and loving.

    Eventually, we will probably have to implement some kind of robot-bill-of-rights I suppose… or some laws governing robot behavior so they don’t rise up and kill us…of course we’ll probably have robo-terrorists to worry about at some point too…

    Nah, scrap that. Maybe they could just let humans fly with our sippy-cups and laptops.

  30. Has anyone ever proposed giving optional, government subsidized martial-arts and crisis-handling classes to flight attendants? They’re already there on the planes, and many might quite willingly go through the training for their own sakes, let alone those of the passengers if there’s a problem on the flight.

    It’s unlikely to tread on anyone else’s toes unless an attendant decides to go Chuck Norris on someone, and then they just get arrested for assault =p

  31. The TSA only needs to protect the pilots. As long as the flight crew is left alone the plane will land safely. If a passenger goes nuts and attacks other passengers – well that can also happen on a train or a bus. The point is the plane must not be overtaken and used as a missile. The cabin doors must be strong and kept locked. And the passengers are on their own.

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