British theorist Stafford Beer coined the phrase, ”the purpose of a system is what it does.”
He went on to say:
This is a basic dictum. It stands for bald fact, which makes a better starting point in seeking understanding than the familiar attributions of good intention, prejudices about expectations, moral judgment, or sheer ignorance of circumstances.
Accordingly, to discover the purpose of the TSA, observe what the TSA does.
The purposes of the TSA are many: to label four-year-old girls suspects and give them nightmares; to organize travelers into long lines in which they must wait; to create and examine nude images of travelers; to rub the genitalia of each patdown selectee four times through his or her clothing; to create a Pavlovian response that links baggage X-ray machines to removing one’s shoes; to spend extraordinary sums of money beyond what travelers pay for their own humiliation; to ensure compliance with rules whose purpose is opaque; to trigger traumatic memories in sexual assault survivors; to provide employment for anyone willing to put their hands down the pants of strangers; to employ large numbers of people whose jobs are to shout orders at travelers or ensure that people only traverse doorways in one direction; and so on.
To be fair, we must state that the purpose of the TSA also includes removing guns, knives, tools, purses with gun insignias, four-inch GI Joe guns, light sabers, suspicious cupcakes, and large bottles of shampoo or water from the bags of travelers. The TSA certainly does do a lot of this.
Not one of these objects that passengers neglectfully carried, however, was ever a danger to an aircraft, because none of those passengers was a terrorist. We know this because no passenger has ever been charged with terrorism, nor even banned from aircraft, after the offending items were discovered. In fact, the TSA affirmed that these passengers were not a danger by allowing each to board, though some were detained and delayed.
According to the best available evidence, the TSA confiscates some, but by no means all, weapons at the checkpoint. For instance, last year’s great catch of a clearly-labeled block of C4? They only caught it on the traveler’s return trip. So call that a 50% success rate. This loaded gun, these 12-inch razor blades, and these box cutters all got past the TSA in carry-ons. A determined criminal could simply make repeated attempts to carry on these items until an attempt succeeds; and eventually, one will. So the purpose of the TSA is not to keep weapons off planes, because the system doesn’t do that.
TSA Administrator John Pistole is fond of stating that the purpose of the TSA is to ensure “that everybody is secure on every flight,” but the TSA doesn’t bother addressing the factor that causes 23 out of 24 airplane passenger deaths: aviation accidents. Thus, the TSA’s purpose is only to fret over astronomically unlikely means of death, while leaving you vulnerable to death risks that, while rare, are still more likely than terrorist attacks.
Returning to Stafford Beer’s theory, the principle that a system’s purpose is what it does “is generally invoked to counter the notion that the purpose of a system can be read from the intentions of those who design, operate, or promote it.”
The TSA’s purpose is not to apprehend terrorists, nor to foil terrorist plots by confiscating items at the checkpoint, no matter what its promoters and apologists say. The TSA has never apprehended a terrorist nor foiled a terrorist plot, so that can’t be its purpose.
A few objectors may now protest that the purpose of the TSA is to deter terrorists from trying to attack U.S. flights, but that strains credulity. There’s a cadre of violent extremists in the U.S. who have been sitting on their hands doing nothing for a decade because of the TSA its defenders would like you to believe. Yet these extremists apparently have no interest in attacking unprotected targets like schools, malls, ports, liquefied natural gas plants, sports events, buses, subways, or the unsecured areas of airport terminals. If you believe that, I know a great bridge with a low asking price you may be interested in.
So back to the purpose of the TSA, which we can see by what it does: The purpose of the TSA is to virtually strip-search and sexually humiliate the flying public, every single day. That is what the TSA does.
(Photo: Flickr Creative Commons/Miss Kari Baby)