TSA Failure

I’ll admit up front that one reason I’m writing this is that I am a disgruntled TSA customer. My tax dollars pay for the “service” I get from the TSA, and I’m not happy with the service. I don’t want to have to take off my shoes as a prerequisite for boarding an airliner. Travelers from European airports don’t have to and don’t seem more at risk because of it. I’ve been harassed by TSA employees that I’m sure fit the definition of sexual assault. Also, I’ve missed more than one flight because the TSA lines were backed up. (OK, I’ve missed a total of two, but that’s still too many.) If you are happy with the service you get from TSA, feel free to add a comment.

The TSA was established to prevent terrorists from boarding commercial aircraft preventing a repeat of September 11, 2001. Public policy is always aimed at preventing past crises rather than future threats. It’s an example of the ratchet effect popularized by Robert Higgs. When a crisis occurs, the government ratchets up in response, and once the crisis has passed, it doesn’t ratchet back down to its former level.

A repeat of September 11 is very unlikely because once that threat is revealed, passengers are motivated to take action to stop it rather than sit passively as the government previously told them to do. That’s why the fourth hijacked airliner on September 11 didn’t make it to the terrorists’ destination. People learn fast when their lives are at stake.

TSA has been around now for two decades, and it has yet to uncover any terrorists trying to board aircraft. (Yes, I’ve heard the argument that they are not trying because TSA is there to deter them.)

What prompted me to write today is a series of recent articles reporting on Americans who have been detained in Turks and Caicos for trying to board aircraft while carrying ammunition. Some of those stories are herehere, and here.

I’ll set aside whether those who have been detained are being threatened with too severe a punishment for what they claim are innocent mistakes to focus on the fact (noted in the news coverage) that those people carried that same ammunition through the US TSA checkpoints to board their flights to Turks and Caicos.

You’ve heard stories about TSA failures to detect illegal materials when the system has been tested. Why can screening at Turks and Caicos detect illegal material that screening in the US cannot?

One problem is TSA’s “one size fits all” screening. (The existence of Pre-Check makes it two sizes fit all.) We’re using way too many resources to screen people who are very unlikely to be terrorists, which dilutes the resources we use to screen those who are more likely threats.

Had TSA been doing its job, those people caught with ammunition at Turks and Caicos would not have been able to get that ammunition out of the US. I think the TSA excessively screens most people, but that’s its mandate, and in this case, it failed, not just once but multiple times.

Randall G. Holcombe is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, the DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University, and author of the Independent Institute book Liberty in Peril: Democracy and Power in American History.
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