Just ahead of the busiest travel week of the year, the
Transportation Security Terrorist Supply Administration has major egg on its face, in the wake of a report showing that screeners routinely missed potential bomb components in covert tests across the country:
In one set of tests, however, investigators were stopped for having items in a bag larger than quart-size but were allowed to proceed through a checkpoint without being forced to transfer the items to a smaller bag. At another airport, a screener stopped a tester carrying a small, unlabeled bottle of medicated shampoo, saying "it could contain acid," but did not recognize an actual liquid explosive carried separately by the tester.
In other examples, an investigator carried coins in his pockets to trigger a hand-wand and pat-down search but brought bomb components through without notice.
This is not a surprise to anyone who travels frequently. I can't count the number of times I've been standing there, shoeless, in a security line, and heard a passenger ahead of me or in an adjacent line being warned about personal care products that are in containers too large to be carried on under current regulations, or not in the stupid bags that we're supposed to use, even as I walk through the scanner with a forgotten pocketknife in my jeans, or unbagged containers of liquids (hand sanitizer, saline nasal spray, or decongestant--obviously, I'm a terrorist) in my carryon bag. Our airport security is a classic case of swallowing camels and straining at gnats.
Predictably, the GAO report that announced the findings of the tests calls for even more stringent measures. I would argue that we really ought to drop the premise that the TSA is contributing anything worthwhile to airline security and completely revamp the way we handle security screenings. The answer is not to make passengers show up naked and banning carry-on luggage altogether, though I'm sure there's a bureaucrat who's proposed something along those lines. The answer is to get serious about what we're looking for, what we need to worry about, and who is likely to carry it.
We can throw out the assumption that it is only scarybrownpeople or
Muslims Islamojihadifascists that we need to worry about: not only are those assumptions racist at base, they're fundamentally stupid. Sure, al Qaeda is significantly pissed at us right now--but they're hardly the only ones. And unlike the TSA which is living proof of Newton's First Law of Motion (specifically the part about inertia), al Qaeda and other serious terrorist groups are smart enough to think ahead and recruit ordinary-looking, innocuous white people to carry their water (or whatever) onto our planes.
We don't need to worry about shoe bombs. Not only was the only person who ever attempted such a thing caught, have you ever tried bending down to do anything with your shoes in the average economy-class airline seat lately? It would be significantly easier to hold a 10-person orgy in an airplane lavatory. U.S. airports are, to the best of my knowledge and in my experience, the only ones in the world where passengers are required to take their shoes off to go through security. (And I can't believe the number of people I see going through without socks on, standing barefoot on floors that God knows who has tracked up with God knows what kind of nasty gunk.) Yet, strangely in the TSA's view, I feel safer flying out of Charles de Gaulle in Paris, or Ben Gurion in Tel Aviv. I may not have to take off my shoes in either of those latter airports, but I'll damn sure get more than a cursory look from the security personnel, and they will actually look at (and sometimes into) my luggage. Repeatedly. It may not be as geek-cool as some of the high-tech scanners TSA is apparently wanting to deploy, which would allow them to virtually strip passengers passing through security checkpoints, but unlike the high-tech toys, the security measures in Paris and Tel Aviv actually appear to work.
Neither, unless I'm flying back to the United States, do I have to limit the size of the liquid containers I bring on board with me, or put them in a plastic bag. (Really, what the hell does that do to facilitate the screening process?) In my more cynical moments, I'm inclined to suspect that TSA uses such measures more as a public-relations campaign to lull travelers into a false sense of security.
And that, I suspect, is the crux of the matter right there. TSA seems to be far more interested in appearing to be effective than in actually being effective. And that's not acceptable. I'm willing to put up with a few inconveniences in return for a reasonable expectation that I will not be injured or killed in a terrorist action when I board a plane to go on a vacation or business trip. But there are limits to what I'm willing to put up with without griping--and I have absolutely no patience for purely cosmetic measures. Given that, on a good day, TSA screenings appear to be good for little more than providing the illusion of security, I'm growing less and less willing to continue putting up with them.