Making Sense of the TSA

Good editorial at the New York Times today from John Tierney about the giant mess that the creation of the TSA has made of airline security. Hot on the heels of the news that dangerous babies have been prevented from boarding their scheduled flights, Tierney points out a few basic facts that seem to have escaped Congress and the TSA. Things like the comparative ease of bombing a crowded airport security checkpoint or check-in desk. Things like the uselessness of nail scissors in holding a plane hostage. Or the strange and seemingly obvious fact that the way to fix a bloated federal bureaucracy like the former FAA is not to replace it with a new bloated federal bureaucracy like the TSA.

We all know that the carry-on restrictions before September 11th were a joke. In the spring of 2000, I walked through a checkpoint with a Leatherman multi-tool in my backpack that featured a five-inch long, razor sharp locking blade. I didn’t get a second look from the sparsely staffed security check at Logan Airport- because I wasn’t doing anything illegal. Just like the 9/11 highjackers weren’t doing anything illegal until they pulled their boxcutters out and started taking hostages.

While the old rules may have been stupid, two stupids don’t make a smart, to paraphrase an old saying. These days, a terrorist on a plane with nail scissors or a Swiss Army knife can do one of two things: 1) trim his nails, 2) be beaten to a bloody pulp by an entire cabin full of already-paranoid air travelers who no longer think they have any incentive to cooperate with terrorists. No one is benefitting from the TSA’s bizarre toiletry rules (except for the highly influential nail clipper lobby).

Unfortunately, like any bureaucracy, security organizations do a poor job of thinking creatively or taking risks. The pattern that we are going to see for the next several years will be terrorists thinking of new ways to stage attacks, followed by security organizations racing like mad to prevent attacks that have already happened.

The case of Richard Reid is particularly instructive. Nearly four years after the so-called ‘Shoe Bomber’
almost destroyed his Paris-Miami flight with explosives concealed in his shoes, do we have sophisticated procedures and chemical tests for every piece of baggage that passes through the security checkpoint, looking for concealed explosives in everyday items? Nope. But we sure do know what everyone in line’s socks look like.


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