On Friday, the Transportation Security Administration announced that an undercover agent passed through screening at Newark airport with a fake bomb. Don’t worry—a TSA official said the agency runs these kinds of tests often, and screeners fail to detect fake bombs “all the time.” Meanwhile, the New York Post continues its tradition of responsible journalism with this first-person account from an anonymous Newark TSA screener. Or it’s Ian Mohr typing with a sheriff’s badge stuck to his monitor. That’s the beauty of an anonymous tell-all; we just don’t know. We also don’t know whether the fake bomb the TSA brought through Newark was The Blair Witch Project or something of their own making. Huh? Am I right? I’d like to remind you that this blog is free.
Also, we have no way of knowing if airport security is a joke. The TSA refuses to say how often screeners fail to find the dummy devices in so-called “red team” tests. We could trust the New York Post to ensure that its nameless Newark screener is an honest and conscientious employee, but we’re talking about the same paper that ran a front-page photo of a man who had been pushed onto the subway tracks. The Post sells papers. Beyond that, its priorities are unclear. We are left with few fixed points by which to triangulate airport security’s realness.
Granted, we have a little concrete data. We know, for example, that after the TSA announced it would allow pocket knives onto aircraft in order to focus its searches on devices and liquid explosives, flight attendants, air marshalls and some pilots objected. John Pistole stands by his decision. I don’t know enough about airline security to say who is right, but it seems odd to me that the TSA would implement a broad change to its rules without knowing what flight attendants, air marshalls and pilots thought about it.
That sounds like an oversight. It also seems like an oversight to take away my precious moisturizer with Q10 enzyme* and let me keep my laptop battery, or confiscate my nail clippers and then send me onto the plane with my belt. Remember that scene in Good Will Hunting when Will speaks harrowingly about his father beating him with nail clippers? And the attention paid to my shoes seems utterly misplaced, given that one guy brought a shoe bomb onto a plane and it didn’t work.
In general, the things that TSA screeners are screening for seem to derive from terrorist plots we didn’t catch that did not work anyway. This phenomenon supports our anonymous Newark screener’s claim that “A LOT of what we do is make-believe.” If you accept the idea that most of what happens in airport security is designed to make us feel more secure, a lot of empty gestures—including but not limited to frisking toddlers—make more sense.
So does much of this country’s behavior since September 11, 2001. Nobody likes the TSA, and virtually every traveler agrees that airport security is absurd and miserable, but we had to do something. To go about the business of air travel as usual would be to admit that we couldn’t protect ourselves from arbitrary violence. We all have to take our shoes off at the airport for the same reason we invaded Afghanistan: because someone’s got to pay, dammit. Since 9/11 changed everything, it follows that we have to do a bunch of stuff.
That stuff may not necessarily be protecting us from bombs. Or it’s working great—we don’t have a reliable way of knowing, since the TSA does not publish its success rate, the Post is not publishing names, and the grumbled observations of management consultants in line at LaGuardia are not scientific. Probably, TSA screening works as long as we believe it does.
This is true in an optimistic sense; the perception of airtight security at major airports likely deters people from trying hijack and/or explode planes. It’s also true in its cynical construction. If the real function of TSA screening is to make us feel better about the possibility of terrorist attack, then it serves its purpose as long as we think it does. If it doesn’t work, though—if some event or New York Post feature should somehow convince us all that the TSA is bullshit—then we face a serious problem.
The problem is not security. The TSA finds as many bombs as they find whether we have faith in them or not. The act of smirking ruefully as security screeners perform a charade of patting us down and using “sir” in the most derisive tone possible, however, has a corrosive effect on civic feeling. A good government is not the one that makes you stand in line to submit to an empty display of authority. Maybe, on the long list of evils that may or may not afflict America at any moment, we should revise the positions of “bomb plot” and “parade of empty gestures at security,” respectively.