Airport security is back in the news this year, with passengers and the Transportation Security Administration alike anticipating longer lines than ever as the summer travel season begins. Yet for all the handwringing and occasional proposing of solutions, few are addressing the central issue: that the system itself is ineffective, inefficient and just plain dumb.
This year’s anticipated crisis is the result of two primary factors: first, the good news that the economy is largely recovered and people are traveling more, and second, the bad news that while Republicans in Congress love to demand more law enforcement, they hate to pay for it, and their budget cuts have produced a shortage of TSA employees that won’t be remedied by this summer. (There are also problems with TSA itself, though many Republicans want to see TSA fail so that the system can be privatized, so it’s hard to get an accurate read.)
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson recently announced some Band-Aids: more overtime, faster hiring procedures and more dogs.
But these tweaks ignore the fact that our airport security process is hopelessly broken, and has been from its inception. Unlike, for example, Israel’s extremely effective systems, which have been tested and refined over decades, the American system doesn’t work at rooting out actual threats, and produces needless, costly delays. It is, experts agree, a kind of “security theater”: a pageant to convey the message that you’re safe while actually doing simultaneously too much and too little.
Too much: The whole world is laughing at us as we pointlessly take off our shoes based on one (failed) terrorism attempt years ago. Why is shoes-on safe enough for Israel but not safe enough for America? Why do we take air hijackings so seriously when cockpits are now locked, and nobody has seriously tried to hijack an American plane in years?
And too little: A recent audit showed that TSA screeners failed to detect weapons 95% of the time. Ninety-five percent wrong! That’s not just a failing grade, that’s a grade of nearly zero. (Given how many weapons TSA does find, it makes you wonder how many get through.) No wonder TSA whistleblowers are reassigned or shushed up; the whole system is a lie.
It’s not even a noble lie. Does forcing grandmothers to get out of their wheelchairs really make anyone feel safe? To the extent anyone believes the security theater, it probably just makes them feel more afraid — or angry with the “terrorists” whom we have allowed to destroy our way of life.
More likely, spectacles like this, which take place every day at 400 airports across the country, look like a kind of visual political correctness. The long lines at security checkpoints humiliate the innocent and fail to catch the guilty. Everyone knows that sealed water bottles, toothpaste and cream cheese don’t pose a security threat. Yet just like listening to the idiotic, rote instructions about how to buckle your seatbelt on the airplane, we have to go through the motions, cogs in a broken machine.
The difference is that this system is a gigantic waste of time and money. Not only the government’s money, but also our own. Let’s do some math. There are about 1.73 million passengers every day. If each spends just half an hour in line, that’s roughly 860,000 hours. And at an average wage of $16.75, which already accounts for the unemployed, that’s $14.4 million dollars every day, or $5.2 billion per year, in lost productivity.
And for that, we get a system that’s 95% ineffective.
The problem is that, when it comes to aviation security, the government has lost its mind. TSA’s mandate doesn’t balance risks and costs, as agencies do in health, environmental and safety regulations; it is focused on attaining zero risk, regardless of the cost in time, money, inconvenience or dehumanization. That is ridiculous — and it doesn’t work.
It’s also tragic. We now know that the Bush administration manipulated the color-coded “threat levels” (remember those?) for political reasons; Donald Trump is hardly the first politician to observe that fear is an excellent motivator. And while TSA policies are (I assume) not deliberately designed to increase fear, the fact that they do so erodes our democracy, terrifies our populace and turns us into a nation of ninnies.
Once more, one need only look to the Jewish state to see a study in contrast. Remember a year and a half ago, when empty threats from North Korea sent movie theater chains into a panic, and stopped them from showing “The Interview”? I wrote at the time that “Israel has long recognized that to cower in fear is to hand terrorists precisely the victory they are seeking. It has also learned to sift credible threats from bluster.”
American conservatism talks tough precisely because its adherents are scared stiff. And this leads to bad policy, whether on immigration, the “war on terror” or aviation security.
Now, the United States cannot and should not adopt Israeli policies wholesale. In large part, Israeli security is efficient because it relies on racial profiling; ask any “Arab-looking” person how “efficient” his experience at Ben-Gurion was. Whatever the Israeli cost-benefit analysis of this approach, it runs counter to American values — at least unless Trump wins the election. That grandmother is getting out of her wheelchair so the dark-skinned man isn’t treated differently from her, and that’s how it should be.
But the Israeli system does strike a more sensible balance between screening people and screening things. It doesn’t waste time with far-fetched scenarios like a shoe bomb, and does include more of the human element. The American system — screening things — is a policy choice that has led directly to the two-hour waits at airports. It would not be difficult to adopt some of Israel’s people-centric policies without sliding into racial profiling. For example, the system could select people for the current level of screening neither at random (as our system supposedly does now) nor based on racial characteristics, but based on how they answer a couple of simple questions (no need for El Al’s interrogation; just a quick screen would do), or how they are acting, or other triggering but non-racial characteristics, like traveling alone. Most people would speed through a quicker line, while some would undergo the level of screening we all endure now. Of course, this holds the potential for profiling and abuse, but so does our current system, as many people know all too well.
Most important, we should be adopting some Israeli attitudes. Americans, especially conservative ones, are rapidly becoming a nation of scared little children, terrified of Muslims, Mexicans, Ebola (remember that?), Zika, the Islamic State group, whatever. Yes, the world is a dangerous place — even though, by most measures, it’s the safest it’s ever been. But let’s grow up. Let’s face threats where they are real and not imagined, and stop yearning for a strongman — or a body scan — to protect us from our fears.
The problem with aviation security isn’t about human resources; it’s about the human spirit. We can do better.
Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor to the Forward. Follow him on Twitter @JayMichaelson