More Idiocy from TSA

The NSA is an easy target, and I’ve written about them twice before, but this latest bout of tomfoolery from the worst of American bureaucracy demanded comment, for consistency’s sake if nothing else. From Margaret Hartmann’s Daily Intelligencer article yesterday:

The agency announced on Sunday that U.S.-bound travelers at some overseas airports will be asked to turn on their cell phones and other electronic devices before boarding. “As the traveling public knows, all electronic devices are screened by security officers,” the TSA said in a statement. “Powerless devices will not be permitted onboard the aircraft. The traveler may also undergo additional screening.”

This is ludicrous. Heaven forbid you happen to travel abroad and forget a charger, or use up the last of your battery right before you get to the airport – what happens then? Are people going to be expected to leave their laptops and iPhones and Kindles in random airports across the globe because they happened to have been doing a lot of battery-intensive web browsing prior to boarding?

But forget the potential inconveniences this might cause, and think for a second about the mindset that underpins this approach to security. It’s an approach that, faced with an object claiming to be a laptop (or phone, or tablet, or whatever), says, “Prove it.” Which, when it comes to something that can fairly easily be toggled on and off to do so, doesn’t seem completely unreasonable. But where do we decide to simply take things at their word, for being what they purport to be? I am, in the main, not very sympathetic to the slippery slope approach to argumentation; I think we can make reasonable distinctions in most cases. But TSA has proven itself time and again to be almost preternaturally gifted at making distinctions so bad they would be comical were it not for the fact that, you know, they’re responsible for fucking airport security; case in point might be the regulation that allows children to keep their shoes on during screening, because of course no terrorist organization would ever think of that.

So that is all a very long way of saying that I have zero faith in TSA’s institutional decision-making capacity, and I fully expect them to make terrible choices about what things we should “prove” a la laptop and what things we can just accept as probably safe enough to take on a plane. Already we have the insanity over liquids (is that really apple sauce you’ve got there? Tastes like C4 to me…), and the insistence on these idiotic full-body scanners is also evidence of an approach predicated on assessing the validity of a thing’s true thing-ness (there is something oddly Platonic about all this).

Aside from the idiocy of this approach to security, Hartmann’s article illustrates nicely the paranoia which grips the American domestic security apparatus:

Officials said there is no specific threat against the U.S., or proof that terrorists have attempted to use such a device. However, ABC News reported last week that there are concerns that terrorists in Syria are developing new types of bombs to bring on commercial aircraft. Analysts believe that some extremist groups there hope to bring down a U.S. or Europe-bound plane, with help from foreigners who have joined the conflict.

This is U.S. officialdom literally saying, “we are nebulously scared and so in the absence of any identifiable threats we’re just going to make up some new rules to help us sleep better.” They’re not even pretending to have a clearly articulated reason. The retort – or a retort – is that, indirectly, we get the bureaucracy we deserve via the politicians we elect. Were we not such a craven electorate when it comes to issues of national security, perhaps we wouldn’t be saddled with a $7.39 billion albatross of an institution. One suspects there is a lot of truth to that, which is why, ultimately, TSA’s continued existence is the result of a comprehensive failure of leadership. I don’t imagine what follows will be a sentiment I express frequently, but at least when it comes to the TSA we could do with a whole lot more politicians like Rand Paul.