Even given the serious nature of the threat posed by terrorism, one has to feel a bit of sympathy for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Tasked with protecting the nation’s security at points of entrance and egress — particularly our airports — they face a delicate balancing act.
On one side they have the nation as a whole, demanding 100% efficacy in stopping violent attacks on civilian flights. On the other side we find all of the individuals who make up that nation who wish to be inconvenienced as little as possible while flying grandma’s annual fruitcake to her during the holidays.
If they are too trusting and complacent you wind up with some maniac getting on board with explosives tucked into his shoes, underpants, or fringed bonnet. Err in the other direction and you get an overzealous agent slapping handcuffs on journalist Michael Yon for failing to provide his W-2s for the last ten years during screening.
The entire subject seems to set off alarms and hot-tempered emotions on both sides of the aisle. This became exceedingly clear when the excellent conservative political cartoonist Sarjex published a bit of satire on the subject of the undie-bomber at another website where I write. She was immediately labeled a “racist” in comments and email for reasons I never managed to work out. But the single panel cartoon managed to highlight one of the core issues under debate: we don’t want to offend anyone, but we are equally averse to having our airplanes explode in mid-flight.
It’s not as if the TSA isn’t trying. If you visit their website you can view a wide range of items which are banned from flights, keeping us all safer in the friendly skies. These are broken down into helpful categories for the easily confused which include sharp objects (makes sense), guns and firearms (ya think?), and explosives (who could have guessed?).
But along with the no-brainer categories, they have expanded their list to include others such as sporting goods. I suppose I can see where some people would need to be reminded that they can’t bring their golf clubs or pool cues as carry-on items, but spear guns made the list as well. Honestly, folks, the lady took away your Bic lighter when you went through the inspection station. Did you really think you could stroll on with a spear gun?
Their general category of tools also seems like it would mostly apply to people who are simply too stupid to fly. We should by now have reached the point where most of us with an IQ above room temperature would know that they’re not going to let you on with an ax, an electric cattle prod (that’s a “tool?”), or a “cordless portable power saw.” But were people really still trying to carry on hammers, screwdrivers over seven inches in length, and power drills? I know some of these flights can be long and passing the time is a challenge, but what were you planning on doing? Finally getting around to fixing that creaky kitchen cabinet door en route from Chicago to Orlando?
As early as last September, TSA had already instituted what they optimistically called their “Secure Flight Program.” As this helpful Q&A points out, the system brings untold benefits to travelers, in terms of both security and convenience, while tightening their precautions against terrorist threats. The core premise appeared solid, at least in theory. They were going to shift responsibility for the checking of traveler names against watch lists from the airlines to the government and have it done by computer at the time of ticket purchase. This would, they reasoned, shorten lines at the airports.
Unfortunately, the system was prone to produce false positives, particularly in the case of married women. Some chose to hyphenate their last names and the system was not designed to accept any form of punctuation. Also, various states process such name change requests differently when applying for a new driver’s license, so getting two matching documents which would pass the screening muster frequently proved impossible. This has delayed implementation and left TSA with yet another black eye while doing little to enhance either the security or efficiency of the process.
So what should we do to improve the TSA? Certain administration officials have suggested that unionizing the organization might improve matters. This prompted National Review author Jim Geraghty to hop on his Twitter account and opine, “Unionizing TSA workers will turn that agency into the efficient paragons of accountability that the Big Three automakers are today.” But at least the Democrats aren’t the party of no ideas. My own suggestion that they simply turn the entire thing over to the Teamsters and be done with it has yet to be brought up in committee.
No matter what direction the current administration pursues, airline travel will remain an increasingly challenging activity for the foreseeable future. Whether it’s full-body scanners which inevitably put your wife’s unmentionables up on low-quality porn sites or the need to produce a valid library card with no overdue books at check-in, we’re going to be paying a price if we hope to avoid being scattered across the ocean in flaming bits and pieces. It’s a price we’re simply going to have to pay given the nature of the world today.
But try to remember to leave your chainsaw and arc welder back in the garage, please. I’d like to get home before Mom’s gravy congeals entirely.