Which is harder: for an uninvited guest to sneak into a state dinner at the White House, or for a properly ticketed passenger to board an airplane?
You’re not alone if you have to think about your answer. Despite that, the airplane in question will not necessarily be safe.
This is how American aviation security works — or rather doesn’t work. In order to provide an illusion of security, we have made air travel impractical for nearly any trip that is less than a full day’s drive.
If you are satisfied with this, then by all means let’s put some new functionary in charge at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) without any further thought. If you see a problem here, then perhaps it’s time to re-think everything — including the TSA’s existence as we know it.
We have learned much recently about post-9/11 airport security policies. We do not have a system that failed — we have a system that is designed to fail. For example:
1. All it takes to shut down air traffic all along the East Coast is for one concerned bystander in Newark to tell an inattentive (absent, sleeping?) TSA worker that someone just walked right past him when he wasn’t looking. That was enough to force some 10,000 people to go back through a security line.
2. As Jeffrey Goldberg demonstrated in a November 2008 Atlantic Monthly piece, anyone who can print out a fake boarding pass and carry a bottle labeled “saline solution” can enter our “secure” terminals with dangerous chemicals.
3. Who can blame former Vice President Al Gore for using private jets after his experience in 2002, when he was given the full-body pat-down twice on a single trip to Wisconsin?
4. In March, TSA employees detained an aide to Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, simply because he was carrying $5,000 in cash and checks.
But, you might say, aren’t these inconveniences, and TSA’s $46 billion annual budget just the price we pay for safety? Hardly, because we’re not getting safety. A Nigerian man with documented terrorist ties, whose name was already on a watch-list, known both to the British government and to ours as a threat, was given a visa and allowed to board a U.S.-bound plane wearing explosive underpants. Had he lit his drawers on fire in the bathroom and not in his seat, we’d be watching memorial services for 300 passengers today.
In short, we have turned our airports into something out of 1984, and we’re not safer for having done so.
President Barack Obama does not deserve all of the blame for TSA’s sorry state. He does, however, have the opportunity to make things right. First, unionization of TSA workers should be out of the question, unless you want a court fight every time TSA tries to discipline or fire an incompetent employee.
Second, it’s time for some creative thinking. Could our airports, as opposed to airplanes, be any less safe than they are right now, when a single bomb could take out hundreds of passengers concentrated in lines outside the security checkpoints?
If our post-9/11 goal is to prevent hijackings, as opposed to guarding airports, is there any benefit to creating a “secure area” throughout the entire terminal and risking more incidents like the one in Newark?
Would we be any less safe from hijackings if, instead of trying to police acres and acres of airport space, we simply screen passengers and their carry-ons as they board?
Do we even need the theatrical presence of uniformed TSA screeners when flight crews can be trained to screen their own planes just as well?
These are just a few thoughts — there must be hundreds of better ideas out there. But the point is simply that anything would be better than what we have now: Minimum security bought with maximum hassle.
Examiner columnist David Freddoso is online opinion editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.