Time to Streamline Burdensome Airport Security

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Time to Streamline Burdensome Airport Security

The federal government is thinking about revising excessive airport security measures in response to the air-traveling public’s growing resentment of security checks. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the federal agency with jurisdiction over those oppressive and annoying airport inspections, hopes to improve its public image and survive politically.

In its reassessment of airport screening, the TSA is considering once again allowing passengers to carry scissors, razor blades, and knives less than five inches long and eliminating the requirement for most passengers to take their shoes off at the security checkpoint. Soon passengers may be able to again carry “dangerous” items, such as tweezers and fingernail clippers, when traveling. This government policy change would probably allow a better-groomed air traveler—at last free to reduce the build up of unsightly nose hair and curling fingernails—but could reduce gains made in the cleanliness of passengers’ socks.

Such ridiculous policies are what threatened the unpopular agency’s future in the first place. For example, the requirement for passengers to take off their shoes for inspection came from the unsuccessful attempt by Richard Reid—not the most astute terrorist who ever lived—to light his shoes, filled with explosives, on fire in full view of a flight’s passengers and crew. (He might have had better luck if he had at least attempted it in the bathroom.) Of course, the ban on tweezers, fingernail clippers, etc. was an overreaction to the 9/11 hijackers’ use of box cutters to commandeer aircraft and run them into buildings.

Ending these ludicrous rules is long overdue, but the agency’s effort to go even farther in its charm offensive spells trouble. The agency is also considering exempting certain government VIPs, such as members of Congress, Cabinet members, state governors, and top military officials, from being screened at all.

These are the people—especially members of Congress, who make laws governing airline security, and Cabinet officials, who propose such changes in law and make new regulations governing such matters—who should experience what the rest of us have to go through when we go to the airport. Despite TSA’s short-term effort to reduce the public’s security burden to save itself from bureaucratic oblivion, giving VIPs a free pass may eventually lead to even more over-the-top security measures, especially after the next terrorist scare.

A repetition of 9/11-style attacks became less likely, not because of increased airport security, but because of a change in passengers’ responses to airline hijackings. Before 9/11, passengers and crews, by training, were usually passive when an airplane was hijacked. In the past, hijackers would kill a couple of people to discourage in-flight heroics, but then let the vast majority of passengers on the aircraft live when they got to their final destination. The paradigm changed in the middle of the 9/11 attacks. Modern cell phone technology allowed the passengers on the fourth plane to hear that the other three planes had been used as flying suicide bombs. With nothing to lose, the passengers’ incentive to cooperate with the hijackers evaporated. Apparently, the passengers decided to challenge the hijackers, which may have prevented many more casualties in a fourth building on 9/11. The changed paradigm was also evident after 9/11, when the passengers and crew restrained Richard Reid before he could light his shoe explosives.

In addition to this change in victims’ attitude, adding a relatively inexpensive reinforced cockpit door was the next most effective post-9/11 security measure. It makes more difficult any terrorists’ effort to gain access to the cockpit when trying to convert an airliner into a flying missile.

If these minimal adjustments dramatically reduced the chances of another 9/11-style mass casualty attack using aviation, why does the government go overboard on airport security? For example, initially after 9/11, young national guardsmen were assigned to patrol American airports with assault rifles. Assault rifles were hardly the weapons of choice to select for armament in crowded airports, but they were excellent to show the public that the government meant business in protecting them—even if suicide terrorists trying to sneak aboard planes were unlikely to be deterred from doing so by seeing soldiers with such weapons in the airport lobby.

Computer programs select out passengers with one-way tickets for special screening at airports. Any terrorist who watches the news at all should know by now to invest that little bit of extra cash to get a round-trip ticket, even if he or she wasn’t planning on using it. The embattled TSA is now reexamining this inane measure too.

How did we get to this abysmal state of affairs? Because even in times of crises—in fact, especially in times of crises—politics plagues government security efforts. The Congress and the bureaucracy have to show the nervous public that they are doing something, even if those efforts make little sense. For example, a disproportionate share–65 percent–of the funds spent on homeland security in the United States goes toward aviation security alone, leaving many fewer resources for measures at the ports, borders and on mass transit.

As the crisis atmosphere after a terrorist attack dissipates, however, citizens begin resenting ridiculous, ineffectual security measures and begin to hold politicians and bureaucracies accountable. That is beginning to happen, but the public should demand that the TSA be abolished and airport security be re-privatized. Perhaps this would be a first step toward ending the paranoia that has resulted in excessive emphasis on airport security to the exclusion of everything else.

Ivan Eland is a Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. He is also a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute, and author of the books The Empire Has No Clothes and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.

ISPU scholars are provided a space on our site to display a selection of op-eds. These were not necessarily commissioned by ISPU, nor is their presence on the site equal to an endorsement of the content. The opinions expressed are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ISPU.

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