Having chosen a sedentary lifestyle, or had one chosen for me, I haven’t traveled for months. I used to travel a lot. I miss it. But the one thing I do not miss are the long long lines at security checkpoints. What I do not miss at all is the TSA.
The Transportation Security Administration is the federal agency tasked with airport security. And it is an agency that sucks at its job. TSA’s level of suckitude is really not in much dispute. In recent airport security ‘red team’ tests, TSA agents missed 95% of bombs and guns testers tried to sneak through the system. That’s a horrible test result, like a college exam where you got 5% of the questions right, and missed all the rest. And it’s not an isolated result. They fail these sorts of tests all the time–a 91% failure rate in a Newark test in 2006, 75% in an LAX test in 2007, several failures since.
They’re inefficient, but they’re also annoying. Do you travel? I bet you have some horror stories lately. My niece told about a long wait in an airport security line, while they carefully scrutinized medical equipment she travels with for her ten month-old son. My niece expressed the opinion that her toddler probably did not constitute much of a terrorist threat. The agent was unmoved. And so, a young American woman traveling with two exhausted whiny small children was detained for an absurd amount of time. Why? Because. Because they could. Because she expressed a certain minimal frustration over a needlessly annoying experience.
So why? Why do we spend ten billion a year on the TSA? Why do we make air travel needlessly unpleasant? Why do we put up with intrusive and annoying and rude treatment from underpaid and officious uniformed jerks? Why do we put up endless lines and missed flights and being pushed and prodded and manhandled? Because, right now, TSA agents are very good at making travel more miserable than it needs to be. What they’re bad at is catching people trying to blow up airplanes.
If they’re so bad at their jobs, then why aren’t planes being blown up all the time? Because, frankly, there aren’t that many people trying to blow them up. The terrorist threat in this country is overstated by a factor of, I don’t know, several million. But think about it logically. If 95% of all attempts to sneak bombs and guns and knives into planes succeed, then we should be seeing planes, from American airports, falling out of the sky all the time. And it isn’t happening. There simply do not exist large swarms of terrorists trying to pull off more 9/11s. As Bruce Schneier, probably America’s leading security expert, recently put it, “The TSA is failing to defend us against the threat of terrorism. The only reason they’ve been able to get away with the scam for so long is that there isn’t much of a threat of terrorism to defend against.”
Here’s more from Schneier:
This isn’t to say that we can do away with airport security altogether. We need some security to dissuade the stupid or impulsive, but any more is a waste of money. The very rare smart terrorists are going to be able to bypass whatever we implement. The more common, stupid terrorists are going to be stopped by whatever measures we implement.
We should demand better results out of the TSA, but we should also recognize that the actual risk doesn’t justify their $7 billion budget. I’d rather see that money spent on intelligence and investigation.
There’s another narrative I’ve heard a lot lately, especially from conservatives. The TSA’s manifest failures echo larger failures of government. Government is the problem. Government is bad at everything it tries. So, of course, TSA is bad at its job. We shouldn’t expect otherwise.
In fact, the TSA is bad at its job, and the main reason is political. But it’s not because some mysterious entity called ‘government’ is universally incompetent. Politics reflects human weaknesses and failings. And the point of the TSA isn’t really to prevent terrorist attacks. It’s to create the impression that We’re Doing Something about terrorism. Paradoxically, the more rude and overbearing TSA agents are, the more they remind us that government is responding to a threat we think of all the time, even though it’s really minimal.
It would make sense to spend less on the TSA, not more. It would make sense to simplify and refine security protocols, make it much less intrusive, run more people through more quickly, with only cursory spot checks on peoples’ luggage. But any politician suggesting anything of the kind is going to be accused of being ‘soft on terrorism.’ TSA checks are time consuming and rude and uncomfortable because that’s what we want them to be be like. We want the illusion of security. We don’t care about reality. We prefer a comforting fantasy. In fact, I think we rather like the frisson of thinking that we’re being threatened by Them.
Let’s face it; TSA agents have incredibly boring jobs. It’s a job that attracts people who are willing to do a boring, dreadful job. I’m sorry to say this, but it’s also a job that attracts people that like pushing people around. It’s far past time to consign TSA security to the dustbin of history. And this will never, ever happen.