Nail clippers maybe OK again

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AP reports that TSA is considering significantly relaxing airplane security rules:
The Transportation Security Administration will meet later this month to discuss the plan, which is designed to reduce checkpoint hassles for the nation's 2 million passengers. It comes after TSA's new head, Edmund S. "Kip" Hawley, called for a broad review in hopes of making airline screening more passenger-friendly.

An initial set of staff recommendations drafted Aug. 5 also proposes that passengers no longer have to routinely remove their shoes during security checks. Instead, only passengers who set off metal detectors, are flagged by a computer screening system or look "reasonably suspicious" would be asked to do so, a TSA official said Saturday.

Any of the changes proposed by the staff, which also would allow scissors, ice picks and bows and arrows on flights, would require Hawley's approval, this official said, requesting anonymity because there has been no final decision.

It's helpful to reconstruct the sequence of events:

  1. Terrorists hijack an airplane using boxcutters and other knives that they're allowed to bring onto the airplane.
  2. We ban all knives (as well as other dangerous items such as nail clippers from people's carryon luggage).
  3. We nationalize airport screening despite the fact that the private screeners don't seem to have done anything wrong.
  4. The national airport screening service proceeds to crank down the screws on what you're allowed to bring on the airplane. Currently cigarette lighters are forbidden.
  5. Now, in act five, they're considering loosening the rules to where they were in the beginning.

It's incredibly irritating to not be able to bring nail clippers, pocket knives, multitools, etc. on the airplane, so this is clearly a good thing. On the other hand, if TSA really does relax the rules, it will be a pretty clear admission that the restrictions--and their concomittant cost to taxpayers and passengers--were unnecessary in the first place. One can only hope that this leak is a sign of better risk analysis at TSA, rather than just a random policy shift.

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A more charitable explanation is that the relaxation is the result of a revised threat estimate. Immediately following 9/11, many people assumed that the US was rife with terrorist cells, and that terrorist attacks would become a semi-regular occurrence. Under that assumption, a strict airport security regimen (putting aside whether the one put in place was actually effective) made a certain amount of sense.

Since then, not only have there been no hijackings, but there have been no significant terrorist attacks of any kind on US soil. It's therefore possible that the 9/11 cell was an aberration, or that other countermeasures (improved police work, immigration restrictions, invading Afghanistan) have successfully suppressed the threat. In either case, easing up on airport security would be a reasonable response.

I don't see how you can put aside whether the regimen put in place was actually effective. Precisely the problem is that the high level of urgency cause the TSA to think it had to do *something* without considering whether that something made any actual sense or not.

I know you believe the measures put in place were ineffective, and I don't deny that you have some strong arguments on your side. My point was simply that one could argue in defense of the authorities that the measures were never really tested, since there turned out to be no significant terrorist threat on US soil. Hence we technically don't know for certain whether the measures taken would have deterred hypothetical terrorists or not.

Of course, under this analysis, the measures were still unnecessary, because it turned out that the number of terrorists active in the US was much less than anticipated. But presumably those who made the decisions regarding airport security were not the same ones estimating the number and competence of terrorist cells in the US, and can't be blamed if the latter--quite possibly justifiably, given what was known at that time--overestimated the threat.

If a terrorist cell wants to take over a plane they can do so with or without nail clippers.
Those trained in unarmed combat can readily kill people with their bare hands. So as a terrorist organizer if you are going to train your people to fly jet airplanes, you could teach them other skills as well.

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