Ever since I read Jeffery Goldberg’s dismantling of the Transportation Security Administration, I have believed that the TSA was a complete waste of time. However, it is no use to kick against the goads, of all the worthless crap in our system airport security has the most glaring cause and the least political gain from change. It is the ultimate orphan of a cause: if you make airport security less of a pain then everyone benefits, but if anything ever happens it will be your fault. You would literally have your face of the cover of every paper in the country under a headline blaming you for a terrorist attack.
So I generally try not to get to worked up about it, even while I’m taking off my belt and shoes, getting patted down or being forced to throw away my shampoo. But then I watched the pillow fight hard hitting journalism of 60 Minutes’ TSA special and it got my blood boiling. It was outrageous to watch Lesley Stahl talk to Kip Hawly, the outgoing head of the TSA, who clearly knows his way around the Rudy Guilini playbook: “This is war. These people are trying to kill us. They got on the planes on Sept. 11, 2001 and killed 3,000 people and they will do it again as many times as they can.”
This is the defense of anything and everything in the security apparatus. The argument that Al-Qaeda wants to kill us is inarguable, so that makes the methods used to prevent them similarly beyond debate. This is also indisputable: TSA is hugely expensive, onerous to everyone who travels and, most importantly, has never caught a terrorist. They have detained 180,000 people using 160 million dollar body language experts and were wrong every single time.
Even the “advances” in security, like making everyone take off their shoes and put their liquids in bags, are entirely reactive. Richard Reid didn’t got caught with a bomb in his shoe by the TSA, it wasn’t until he couldn’t manage to light the fuse while sitting in his seat in the plane, that he was stopped. The TSA just plays whack a mole, constantly preventing the last method terrorists came up with.
For that matter, focusing on planes in 9/11 is the ultimate example of insuring your house once it burns down. The lesson of 9/11 isn’t that planes can be weapons, its that in the hands of clever, insanely single-minded people everything is a weapon. Kip Hawley talks about how good they are at stopping guns and knives, but hijackers blew up the towers using box-cutters. Al-Qaeda tried to use a bomb to blow up the World Trade Center the first time, the second time they came back with planes. They put bombs on trains in Madrid and in London and in a nightclub in Bali. They used a boat to blow a hole in the U.S.S. Cole and someone used Anthrax to really freak people out after 9/11.
It is impossible to live in a world with no danger. The real work of preventing terrorism is done by intelligence professionals and the military, not by TSA officers, no matter how official their uniforms look. According to Bruce Scheiner, the counterpoint to Hawley on 60 minutes: “Planes are safer because of “the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers know now to resist hijackers,” everything else is just a show.
As Bob Burns pointed out in the comments below, Richard Reid actually wasn’t screened by the TSA because he flew out of Paris. It is unfair to point out that he was in his seat, but the fact remains that they are always reactive rather than proactive.