Lately, it feels as if I go to the airport more frequently than I go the supermarket. A succession of business trips coupled with a number of family events has meant that my frequent flyer miles are skyrocketing.
This means, of course, that I have numerous encounters with TSA. It is hard to think of another experience which leaves one with less confidence in the government’s ability to handle any challenge, let alone deter terrorism. For the most part, the TSA employees I have met have been pleasant, with only a few acting as if they would have thrived as petty bureaucrats in the old Soviet Union. But pleasant and capable are two entirely different matters.
While some TSA officials are clearly interested in how little work they can do for as much money, vacation time and benefits as possible, (I’m not even counting the ones proven to have behaved criminally) others could, and would probably like to, do a professional, capable job. It seems clear that they are neither trained nor encouraged, and probably not even allowed, to do so.
On a flight last week, as my husband and I approached the metal table to go through the meaningless steps of removing shoes, taking our computers out of their cases, and making sure that we hadn’t brazenly packed any liquids, we noticed two roll-aboard suitcases on the floor at the end of the table. As we and a number of other passengers brought this to the attention of the TSA employees, it became clear that the TSA employees weren’t quite sure what to do with an actual unattended bag. What they did not do was to deem it a serious risk. The bags were first ignored and then put through the X-ray machine, in a room full of travelers.
Had the response been to immediately clear the room and call for individuals trained in bomb detection, we and thousands of other passengers might have missed our flights and pundits would have mocked the over-reaction. But if you’re not going to treat unattended baggage as a serious threat then why the constant annoying recorded announcement warning flyers not to leave bags unattended?
The public face of airport security is doing nothing more than defending a modern Maginot Line. Anytime there is a threat which comes scarily close to succeeding, they pounce on the methodology. This leaves future threats unwatched while hassling millions of harmless people in a pretense that the method (shoes, liquid) was the real threat, rather than individuals. They act like school officials who suspend a student bringing in a Revolutionary War musket for show and tell. Rather than recognizing the opportunity to make history exciting which the family heirloom presents, they focus on a rule book which dictates how to handle students carrying weapons. We all lose when official policy supersedes intelligence, let alone common sense.
Indeed, because I wear skirts rather than pants, I regularly get deemed a high-risk threat and pulled out for extra attention. While airlines, like El Al have military trained inspectors who ask you questions and make a skilled psychological assessment of the person, The United States focuses on objective checklists, playing Keystone Kops as we value political correctness above the safety or comfort of our citizens.