Anne Applebaum on airport security

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Anne Applebaum's column in today's WaPo makes the same point that security types have been making about airport security: it's almost certainly unjustifiable by any reasonable cost-benefit analysis.
This is not to say that the uniformed screeners aren't more professional than they were in the past or that their presence doesn't create a degree of psychological comfort, both for government officials, who can claim to be doing something to keep us all safer, as well as for those passengers who continue to believe that engaging in ritualistic shoe-removal gives them mysterious, magical protection against terrorism. On the grand scale of things, though, that's all it is: magical protection.

...

But, then, this isn't a country that has ever been good at risk analysis. If it were, we would never have invented the TSA at all. Instead, we would have taken that $5.5 billion, doubled the FBI's budget, and set up a questioning system that identifies potentially suspicious passengers, as the Israelis do. Even now, it's not too late to abolish the TSA, create a federal training program for airport screeners, and then let private companies worry about how many people to hire, which technology to buy and how long the tables in front of the X-ray machines should be (that last issue being featured in a recent government report). But every time that suggestion is made in Congress, someone denounces the plan as a "privatization" of our security and a sellout.

Which is why I conclude that we don't actually want value for money. No, we want every passenger to have the chance to recite that I-packed-these-bags-myself mantra to a uniformed official before boarding an airplane. Magic words, it seems, are what make Americans feel really safe.

The long lines and intrusive searches aren't a side effect of an effective screening process, they're an essential part of providing the appearance of security.

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6 Comments

I stopped getting the "have you packed your bags yourself" question a while ago, and I saw it as one of the few signs of sanity in the system. After all, a terrorist probably did pack those bags herself, didn't she? Would she trust some random with her terrorist stuff?


As for magical protection, I would love to see the TSA adopt costumes like those of the radical faeries. Long "princess" skirts, wands, and mandatory beards for both sexes would really ease my waiting time.


But that's probably just me.

I don't get it. What does the private/public status of the screener's employer have to do with the effectiveness of the system?

What seems relevant, IMO, is that they're picking out nail clippers and lighters -- ie that the rules they're implementing are the useless part. Whether they're employed by the federal government, or private security firms implementing the same rules, seems irrelevant to me.

But, then, this isn't a country that has ever been good at risk analysis. If it were, we would never have invented the TSA at all. Instead, we would have taken that $5.5 billion, doubled the FBI's budget, and set up a questioning system that identifies potentially suspicious passengers, as the Israelis do.

Advantage ICBW! (Well, in comments on EG, anyway.)

The "have you packed your bags yourself" question is less inane than you may think:

http://www.tkb.org/Incident.jsp?incID=4570

As for the long lines, they may serve a valuable purpose if they were combined with spot interviews - inspectors can watch for signs of nervousness along people in line.

Of course, that incident doesn't say that she was caught through the use of any questions. Sounds like a diligent El Al security agent. Advantage Israelis again.

I think Eric's point is that, even if you haven't packed the bags by yourself or if they have been out of your control, people don't say that.

How about some ice cream.
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