It may well be true that every person working for the TSA sincerely believes that irradiating passengers, separating children from their parents and toys, confiscating shampoo, cupcakes, and plastic toy hammers, and sticking their hands down people’s pants makes aviation safer. I’m willing to concede that point and continue with the assumption that the TSA is doing these things because someone believes that doing these things prevents terrorism.
But having said that, I want to argue further that (A) sincere beliefs can be wrong: the TSA is demonstrably failing to keep weapons off planes and failing to identify terrorists, and (B) measures taken to improve safety frequently backfire and either cancel out or in fact increase the risks they are supposed to address, and the TSA is a textbook case.
To point A: loaded guns, a five-pound block of C4, box cutters, and Adam Savage’s 12-inch razor blades are all known to have been carried into the passenger compartments of aircraft since the TSA’s offensive searches began. Just last week, the TSA failed to detect a stun gun in the carry-on of an accused rapist. The latest tests of which we are aware show results such a 70% failure rate to detect weapons and explosives, five out of five guns successfully carried through a body scanner in Dallas, and a man setting off a rather large explosion on German TV with the objects he carried through a body scanner.
The TSA cannot keep weapons off planes even if they could detect all weapons, because everyday objects like shoelaces and credit cards and even one’s bare hands can all be turned into weapons.
The Government Accountability Office (p.46) says behavior detection officers failed to identify 16 known terrorists as they transited airports on 23 separate occasions, as against a success rate of *zero* terrorists identified. The TSA can’t find terrorists or weapons with the methods they’re using.
To point B: Yes, it’s possible for the cure to be worse than the disease! Examples abound: adding road caution signs can increase cognitive load such that the accident rate rises; requiring bicycle helmets raised the accident rate in Australia because the law reduced cycling by one-third, and the smaller number of cyclists on the road were more surprising to motorists; and gated communities meant their gates to keep out crime but found they also compromised rapid emergency response. Security expert Bruce Schneier has written extensively about the unintended consequences of misguided “security.” We’ve quoted him here repeatedly.
The TSA endangers people’s health by pressing on injured areas, removing bandages, and contaminating wounds, by demanding that disabled people walk or stand in stress positions — even double-amputees — by confiscating medically necessary supplies, and by breaking insulin pumps and other sensitive medical devices with their scanning machines.
It’s entirely possible to accept these two statements simultaneously: the TSA has only the best intentions when it searches passengers, and the TSA should be immediately disbanded or at least severely restricted in what it can do to innocent travelers.
(Photo: Claire Wilkinson/Flickr Creative Commons)