TSA Is A Miserable Waste

Like many Americans, I traveled by airplane for Thanksgiving. My flights were on time (early, even!), I cleared security quickly, had free and fast WiFi at my gate in Detroit (LaGuardia still has crappy pay-as-you-go Boingo nonsense), and arrived safely and without incident at my destinations. All told, it was a hassle-free trip.

But that’s not going to stop me from complaining vociferously about TSA. The basic premise for TSA’s existence is, barely, understandable. Something like: “There are some things and certain people we’d prefer didn’t travel by airplane in the United States, and since the airlines themselves have an interest in curtailing security measures in order to improve the customer experience, the Federal government should assume responsibility for commercial passenger aviation security.” Fine, I guess. Maybe.

Actually, there’s a lot wrong with that. So much wrong, in fact, that we’re going to make a list:

1. The fixation with commercial passenger aviation. Private aviation is the Wild West by comparison, and it seems like it’s only a matter of time before somebody over at Al Qaeda HQ figures this out*

2. The fixation with catching things in the airport. First, TSA is absofuckinglutely atrocious at this. I never take my liquids out of my bag, and they never seem to notice.** Less anecdotally, see here for an article from 2010 in which TSA sources admit to a 70% failure rate at some major airports. Also here for what is perhaps the “TSA is idiotic” genre’s ur-text. Second, what now successfully stops airborne terrorists is not the pre-flight security checks, but the passengers’ knowledge that they must resist would-be hijackers, since they’re not likely just to be demanding a free flight to Cuba and the release of some Palestinians from Israeli jails (also, reinforced cockpit doors)

3. The fixation with catching people in the airport. El Al can successfully profile their clientele because Israeli society is willing to let them employ security policies which…well, one suspects the ALCU would be employed for decades were they to be used in the United States. I have no problem with a society making this trade-off, but it’s not one the United States is going to make any time soon. Also, 12 of the world’s 30 busiest airports (by passenger volume) are in the United States, making El Al-style security interviews entirely impractical.*** If you’re trying to catch people at the airport, you’re doing it wrong/see above re: passengers fighting back and reinforced cockpits

At best, I think there is a strong argument for basic metal detectors; it’s a low-cost security procedure that seems to be pretty effective in the entire rest of the world at keeping people from getting onto planes with handguns or large machetes. But anything beyond that turns the process into a farce. I’ve repeatedly seen lines at the same security checkpoint using completely different methods of screening; some people get the metal detector while other people get the millimeter wave. I’ve been told my laptop needs to be taken out of its bag and placed in a tray by itself, only to see a gentleman one line over be told to keep it in his bag. If all of this is so damn important, if it’s actually designed to catch bad people and bad things, can TSA at least try to pretend they’re not making it up as they go along?

Right now, the Federal government presumes each and every American (to say nothing of the foreign nationals who have the misfortune of having to transit American airways) is a threat to his or her fellow citizens simply by purchasing a plane ticket. To be fair, secure skies are in some ways a public good, and on that basis my consumption of them can be limited in certain ways; as noted above, I have no problem surrendering my ability to carry a machete with me in exchange for the ability to access commercial aviation. But the costs as currently imposed are enormously out of step; consider the difficulty of breezing through a metal detector versus the current annoyance of undressing oneself in the departure hall.

As it happens, I fly enough to be fairly practiced at the whole process; if you find yourself waiting in a security line it’s not because I’m still struggling to untie my shoes or put my jacket in a separate bin. So this isn’t a complaint based solely on the hassle imposed by TSA. It’s a complaint based on what that hassle represents: a bogus, stunted approach to risk and security that’s been drawn up with all the nuance and subtlety of a toddler’s visceral aversion to “scary stuff”.

The complete absence of risk is simply unattainable, especially in an arena with as many moving parts as air travel. Or rather, the complete absence of risk in air travel while maintaining the type of open, free society I suspect most of us would like to inhabit is unattainable. All this bogus security theater does is slowly erode, in an endless ratchet of increasingly futile security measures, the open and free qualities of society, while doing nothing to make any of us any safer. I’ll be flying again soon for winter break, and I just might have finally calmed down about all this by the time I land back east.

*I don’t think this is an argument for expanding TSA to private aviation, but rather that it is illustrative of the irrationality of TSA policy as currently conceived
**If we’re being enormously charitable, perhaps they do notice and conclude I’m not a threat. On the other hand, if they’re capable of making such sophisticated judgments, do we really need to turn airport security into the set of The Full Monty?
***Statistics according to Wikipedia