Take the TSA–Please!
November 16th, 2010

My little quip about the TSA employing better-looking agents was clearly inadequate. Among other things, they’d also need to allow passengers to select the sex of their patter-downer. And a champagne room. They’d need a couple of those. Also lots of Def Leppard. If the TSA just thought creatively about the problem, you could have a sizable number of travelers yelling “allahu akbar” in line, just hoping to be selected for special scrutiny.

That said, Patterico’s Aaron Worthing has a smart post on the subject of special screenings and John Tyner and it’s all worth considering somewhat seriously.

Airport security has four goals, which to a certain degree are competing. They are, in order of importance:

(1) Keep travel safe.

(2) Keep travel economically efficient.

(3) Protect the majority from undue harassment and annoyance.

(4) Protect minorities from undue harassment and annoyance.

The TSA is tasked with figuring out how to balance these goals in a reasonable manner. That’s a difficult task and one for which we should have some sympathy for several reasons, not least of which because (1) This is still a relatively new problem; and (2) Government bureaucracies like the TSA are constitutionally ill-equipped to make such judgments.

All of that said, there are a couple things which are so obvious as to be beyond dispute, I think. Namely, that the TSA’s expenditure of resources investigating John Tyner is ill-advised at best, and bullying and offensive at worst. The message the TSA is sending through this investigation is that they view the current security situation not as a problem to be solved, but as a set of rules to be enforced.

Second, I think we can all agree that situations change and so security protocols need to be fluid and adaptable. And this is a fact that civilians should be willing to accept with some degree of savoir faire.

Which brings us to the conflicting goals. (1) and (2) are reasonably self-evident–we agree that passengers must be screened in some way but that no acceptable screening regime will be 100 percent effective, because the burdens of perfection would be untenable.

That leaves us with (3) and (4). Some day terrorism in the West may be a multi-cultural phenomenon. This is not that day. The unhappy fact is that there are no Wiccan terrorists. There are no 3-year-old terrorists. There are no Unitarian terrorists. The odds that any given passenger on an American flight will be a terrorist are very, very, very, very small–probably somewhere in the ballpark of 1 in 400 million. But the odds that a 90-year-old Chinese nun will be a terrorist are so infinitesimal as to approach zero.

Post-9/11, America decided–consciously or not–that we would not use these very useful trend lines to profile passengers. (Thanks President Bush!) The calculus was that the price of the inconvenience to the majority was worth the benefit of protecting the minority from bearing special scrutiny.

Yet the costs in this equation have continued to increase. The underlying question in this entire TSA brou-ha is whether or not it’s still worth hassling everyone so as not to wind up only hassling a small group of people, over and over. Maybe it still is. But maybe it isn’t.

The immediate question is whether the new TSA procedures are–qua procedures–effective. Do the backscatter images and enhanced gropings/pat-downs provide better protection for travelers?

If the answer is no–and maybe it is, I haven’t seen actual analysis–then the TSA should abandon them as a matter of course. But if the answer is yes, they do provide some degree of increased security, we have three choices:

(1) Accept the burden for all travelers.

(2) Ask that a small minority of travelers accept the burden–while acknowledging that this is a sacrifice and a mark of forbearance and graciousness on their part.

(3) Decline the marginal increase in security as not being worth either the inconvenience to all or the discomfort of the minority.

  1. tubbylover69 November 16, 2010 at 11:03 pm

    Wait. Isn’t screaming “Allahu Akhbar” the way to get out of special screening? Wouldn’t want to judge anyone!

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  3. SkinsFanPG November 17, 2010 at 8:37 am

    I’m still trying to find someone who can logically justify the TSA enhanced screening procedures (back-scatter/groping). The most common answer I’ve heard is:

    – If we need to inconvenience the few to protect the many, so be it…

    To which I say (especially to conservatives who espouse this view): Oh really? Let’s apply that logic elsewhere: taxes, guns, healthcare, etc…. Doesn’t sound so appealing now does it? The most common reply?

    – Airplanes are unique after 9-11…

    Oh really? Car bombs have killed far more people worldwide since 9-11 than airplanes. Would you care to be subjected to x-rays and groping to operate a car or drive on certain roads?

    – Flying is a PRIVILEGE, not a RIGHT!

    So is driving.

    – You have to undergo a search to enter secure facilities like government buildings, why shouldn’t you have to face the same scrutiny in an airport?

    Very true. I work in one of those buildings. I pass through a metal detector and my bags are x-rayed. But MY BODY IS NOT X-RAYED, AND I AM NOT PHYSICALLY GROPED ALL THE WAY TO MY BALLS!

    Still waiting for a LOGICAL defense of these procedures.

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  5. Jeff Singer November 17, 2010 at 10:22 am

    SkinsFanPG is right on.


    Why doesn’t the conservative movement start demanding the U.S.A. copy Israel:


    It might make travel more expensive, if we passed those costs onto travelers, but is that so bad?

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  7. Kyle November 17, 2010 at 12:43 pm

    Your stated “airport security goals” are derived logically by your clear-thinking mind, but the list is incomplete. If you had specified that airport security SHOULD address those 4 goals, I would concur.

    There are at least two additional goals that are in play here, and I would submit that they are, in actuality, the primary goals of those who created and continue to manage TSA:

    A. Maintain the APPEARANCE of keeping travel safe and addressing threats to the public
    B. Spend vast sums of money via an entrenched bureaucracy that will continue to grow and expand its influence and power

    One truism that I have yet to see refuted is that every individual actor’s motivations are their own, and it is dangerous to assume that we’re all playing from the same deck, as it were. Occam’s Razor is very useful.

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  9. tom November 17, 2010 at 4:22 pm

    Is there a chance that the government really really thinks bad things are about to happen? I also feel like there are many more “Report Suspicious Activity” signs up on my way into DC now. They’ve been on the Beltway for years but they seem to have just made the move onto city streets.

    I’m not saying this is the part where Tea Leoni catches James Cromwell fleeing in a boat with a bunch of Ensure in Deep Impact. Or that it’s like 2012, where they kill the guy who figures out that they’re stealing the Mona Lisa for the secret ark gallery. But our President is black, just like in those movies.