Kevin Drum posted an anti-rant about the TSA, which argues that the new scanners and pat-downs aren’t an outrage because they really mean well:
I’m not trying to defend everything TSA has put in place. Some of the stuff they do, like the penknife and nail clipper bans, really is stupid. And maybe backscatter scanners don’t work. I’m certainly open to the idea. But honestly, most of what they do is pretty easy to understand: they’re trying to make it so hard to get weapons and explosives on board airplanes that no one bothers trying — and the few who do can’t pack a big enough punch to do any damage. For the most part, it seems to be working. The price we pay for this is plenty of annoyance, but again: do you really want to get rid of the annoyance and bet your life that terrorists will never figure out how to make a better shoe/underwear/liquid bomb? I’m not so sure I do.
Josh Rosenau rightly reponds by pointing out that Al Qaeda is not a cartoon supervillain, and of course the go-to guy for commentary about security issues is always Bruce Schneier. Schneier rightly notes that it’s kind of silly to be strip-searching passengers when we’re not effectively searching their luggage, which is probably the strongest practical argument that this really is “security theater”– that is, that the TSA’s policies are more about being seen to be Doing Something about airport security rather than doing what really needs to be done to make planes safe.
I wanted to mention another, slightly more subtle, angle on this that I haven’t seen elsewhere, which is the overall corrosive effect that silly and inconvenient policies have on people’s attitude to authority. In this sense, the TSA approach is a lot like drinking age laws.
By that I mean that the long-standing approach of banning alcohol consumption below a certain arbitrary age ends up making a smallish dent in the actual consumption of alcohol by minors– it’s really not that hard to get alcohol if you really want it– at the cost of a big decrease in respect for the law in general, and an increase in seriously unsafe behavior (clandestine drinking in dorm rooms, etc.). I’m an academic, so my main encounter with the issue is in an academic context, and I think that rigid and hard to enforce drinking age rules does a lot to poison the relationship between students and college and university officials. Whenever the administration announces a new policy or initiative, a large fraction of the student body immediately starts looking for the nefarious anti-alcohol agenda that they assume must be behind everything.
Now, the TSA procedures aren’t anywhere near as easy to circumvent as the alcohol laws, but I think there’s something of the same effect. Pointless and dehumanizing screening procedures manage a marginal increase in safety– as both Rosenau and Schneier have said many times, the best defense against a passenger taking down a plane from within is the vigilance of the other passengers on the plane– at the cost of a significant increase in cynicism about the whole process. And that means that, down the road, when the TSA finally gets its act together to do real screening of luggage, the reaction from the flying public won’t be “Oh, thank goodness they’ve finally closed that loophole,” but “Now what stupid thing are they doing to make my travel experience more miserable?”
If you want a more airplane-specific analogy, think about the ban on electronic devices during take-off and landing. On every flight, they make an announcement sternly warning you that you can’t listen to your iPod until some arbitrary altitude has been reached, despite the fact that there is no significant increase in risk from a passenger having music playing during the start and end of the flight. I know this, because I always blow off that announcement, and listen to my music through the forbidden stretches of the flight.
The net effect of that policy is not to make the plane any safer, but to make me and many other passengers more cynical about airline policies in general. It lowers my opinion of the flight attendants who enforce the stupid and pointless rules, and makes me less inclined to believe anything else they say.
I’m not a wild-eyed libertarian radical in favor of privatizing the roads and that sort of thing– government is essential, and there are times when laws are needed to make people safer. As a general matter, though, I think that we should avoid laws and policies that piss people off more than they help. The TSA rules on passenger screening are pretty solidly in this category, which is why I think they’re a bad idea.
(For the record, I also think that the health concerns about the scanners are silly– the worst case I’ve heard from anyone serious is still far less radiation than you’ll get during the flight– and that the proposal to actively bog down security screening on one of the busiest travel days of the year is asinine.)