Over winter break and just in time for major holiday air traffic, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced a policy change which allowed them to mandate that a passenger go through a body scanning machine, even after a pat-down. Previously, the TSA simply allowed passengers to choose between getting a pat-down and going through the body scanners. Unlike a lot of other TSA policies, it seems at first glance like this measure is just a common sense reaction that gives extra scrutiny to suspicious persons. The only problem is that nothing the TSA does actually makes anyone safer.
Last year, Homeland Security Red Teams — teams designed to overcome security obstacles and measure security — reported that they were able to get weapons past TSA agents in 67 out 70 tests. That isn’t the first time they’ve failed tests either. In 2003 they failed to find planted bombs in Logan International Airport, in 2006 they had a 91% failure rate at Newark International Airport and in 2007 they had a 75% failure rate at LAX.
Though these tests were conducted themselves by Homeland Security experts who know what weaknesses to exploit, that doesn’t excuse the failures of the TSA. If the TSA cannot be reasonably expected to stop people from smuggling weapons or bombs through airports, then what are they good for?
The truth of the matter is that we don’t have the TSA around to make us safer; we have the TSA around because it makes us feel safer. The TSA’s reasoning for its recent change was that it “improves threat detection capabilities for both metallic and nonmetallic threat objects.” Though that is technically true, it’s not as if a large amount of materials can’t go undetected. Disassembled weapons have a great chance at getting through airport security, nevermind the fact that scanning technology is still poor at finding the kind of plastic explosive the underwear bomber used in his plot. If there were an amazingly well-trained and dedicated group of terrorists dedicated to attacking us, they very well could.
TSA practices like taking your shoes off, confiscating liquid containers that are more than 3oz, confiscating novelty junk that looks like real weapons and forbidding people to say the word “bomb” in airports does nothing to actually prevent terrorist attacks, all it does is put on an illusion of security for passengers.
The only reason that the TSA has managed to keep up this charade of helpfulness for so long is just the fact that there hasn’t been much of a strong threat to airports in the post-9/11 world. Given the TSA’s performance, if there was a horde of terrorists waiting to attack us, they would have done it (and been successful) by now. But in fact, no one has hijacked or blown up a plane since 9/11. So the TSA can change guidelines whenever they want, but let’s not pretend like they’re heroes at the vanguard protecting us from an onslaught of terrorists and bombs.
I’m not trying to say that we forego security at airports or on airplanes; I’m saying that what we need is security that makes sense for the level of threat we have. There are lots of things that actually work in making air travel safer: increased amounts of hidden air marshals, increased passenger awareness of danger, reinforced cockpit doors and strong intelligence and investigation from agents behind the scenes.
In many ways, security really is an arms race with ever-evolving tactics and goals. It seems like security experts are constantly seeking ways to overcome the last group of terrorists, but it remains difficult to tell what tactics terrorists would use in the future. Given the facade of security at airports though, it makes some sort of sense that the last several terror attacks we’ve seen here in the United States have been from heavily-armed lone shooters.
The actual risk we face from terrorists in air travel doesn’t justify the $7 billion we spend on the TSA each year. Imagine if that money were used on security practices that do work, or on other beneficial social programs that remain tragically underfunded.
In the end, if Americans find that $7 billion worth of pat-downs, body scans and unnecessary hassle is only a small price to pay in exchange for peace of mind, then I guess we’re just going to have to continue putting up with the TSA. Isn’t the better answer, though, just not to scare so easy? I for one just can’t imagine why we’d take fake security over real privacy rights.
Roy Lyle is a second-year literary journalism major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.