TSA checkpoints are like the flu shots of the travel industry. We think they make us safe, at least within an acceptable range of probabilities. We hate them as much as we hate needles in the arm, but we don’t want to get rid of them.
Most of all, we hope the illusion of safety they provide protects the herd.
Unfortunately, a few of the cattle aren’t getting the message.
In the first week of September alone, TSA workers found 47 loaded firearms in carryon bags at airports nationwide. Of those, 17 had a bullet chambered. They found 15 more that were unloaded (a weekly summary is posted on the TSA Blog).
Salt lake City wasn’t on the list of places where travelers were discovered to be locked and loaded — this time. But our airport is a frequent flyer on the
the list. A few years ago, five passengers here in one month alone were found to have loaded weapons.
And I haven’t even begun to talk about the knives and assorted exotic sharp things, such as throwing stars, people felt they needed onboard along with, presumably, a good book to read, an electronic entertainment device and a sturdy set of earphones.
If nothing else, the consistent and growing confiscation of weapons at airports proves, as gun-rights advocates are fond of saying, that we have little to fear from people who carry weapons. If I’m reading all those undercover audits correctly, what the TSA found probably represents only part what people are carrying.
But that’s hardly cause for comfort in a world of nuts and ne’re-do-wells.
Fifteen years after 9/11, it’s proper to ask whether we are any safer in the air than we were that morning when terrorists carried box cutters with them through security.
The answer is probably along the lines of what Bruce Schneier recently told the McClatchy News Service. Only two things today make us safer. One is the attitude among passengers that they have a responsibility to fight back.
Schneier said, “Go to the airport and pick 10 random people, and they’ll tell you, ‘We know we have to do this, 100 percent.’”
He cites passenger attacks on the so-called shoe bomber and, in a separate flight, on the underwear bomber. He just as easily could have cited other examples, such as a Canadian WestJet flight earlier this month where passengers helped the crew subdue a man who seemed intent on opening a door during the flight.
The second thing Schneier cited was the decision to lock and reinforce cockpit doors, which keeps terrorists from taking control of a plane.
I would rule that a partial success, considering how some pilots or copilots have themselves apparently crashed planes on purpose.
Beyond that, it’s hard to believe the TSA routine we all know by heart does a lot of good, or that a recent increase in the number of agents will make future undercover audits go any better.
The website theintercept.com last year obtained a TSA training document that told agents what to watch for. The list included people engaged in “exaggerated yawning,” for instance. By that measure, half the people in my office could be terrorists.
Other warning signs included people who clear their throat too much, who complain a lot about the screening process, who whistle or who have faces that appear pale, as if they recently shaved a beard.
Of course, people carrying guns are also considered suspicious, although I doubt real terrorists would be so obvious. The most common excuse people use is that they forgot they were carrying a gun. In the United States, that is entirely believable.
Last year, the TSA confiscated a record 2,653 firearms, a figure expected to be easily surpassed this year. Despite this, when people thought they heard gunshots last month at JFK Airport in New York, no one tried to fire back. People began running in all directions, and the TSA agents joined in the stampede. When the same thing happened in L.A. two weeks later, TSA agents and regular folks alike ended up running onto the tarmac.
We probably should do a little more to shore up that illusion of safety.