The United States has spent more than $1.1 trillion on homeland security since 9/11, and many people wonder whether these measures have made us safer. Some cite the lack of a repeat of the terror attacks on New York, Washington, D.C and Pennsylvania proof that new measures are working and well worth the costs. The most visible force in the fight against terror is the Transportation Security Administration(TSA), the government entity that has been appointed to protect our skies.
A Brief History of the TSA
The TSA was formed in the aftermath of 9/11, and former President George W. Bush signed it in to law on November 19, 2001. Prior to that time, airport security was the responsibility of individual private agencies that operated independently at airports across the nation. The TSA is now the exclusive security force at more than 450 airports.
While the majority of airports in the United States are secured by the TSA, the agency allows airports to opt-out and hire their own private security firms. Several airports–San Francisco, Kansas City and Rochester—have elected to use their own private firms. There are nearly 47,000 agents, referred to as screeners. The TSA agents do not carry weapons and are not authorized to make arrests.
Major Airport Breaches
Since 9/11, there have been several airline incidents which have prompted many to question the effectiveness of airport security. According to experts at the Cato Institute, there were more than 25,000 recorded breaches in the decade since the agency was formed. In one incident, a passenger was able to board a plane with a batch of C4 explosive devices. Critics charge that the TSA only discovered the bomb on the suspect’s return flight. Since their formation in 2001, the TSA has not captured a single terrorist attempting to board an aircraft.
People opposed to the invasive measures by the TSA charge that the amount of force is out of proportion with the risks they are preventing. Statistically speaking, the chances of a domestic or international terror attack are low. A repeat of a 9/11-type incident are infinitesimally low. Despite these low risks, millions of travelers are subjected to draconian rules, embarrassing pat-downs and even x-ray-like scanning. The question of whether all of this makes air travel safer is a legitimate one.
January, 2010– A TSA agent left his post unmanned, allowing the partner of a passenger to simply walk through unchecked. The man walked past all of the checkpoints and proceeded to the gate to kiss his girlfriend. This resulted in a major airport shutdown that delayed flights and grounded passengers.
October 2011– A screener slips a note into a passenger’s checked bag saying “Get your freak on girl,” after finding a vibrator in her luggage.
February 2012-A man becomes stranded while kayaking scales a fence and enters the runway at New York’s JFK International airport.
October 2012-The agency fired 25 screeners who were caught sleeping while on the job.
February 2013-TSA agents failed to detain an undercover federal agent who carried a fake bomb in his pants into the airport.
April 2014– A teenager breaches airport security, stows away in a wheel well of a San Francisco jet and flies to Hawaii, undetected.
These failures of the TSA make critics question their usefulness. Many believe that the strict policies of the agency are put in place simply to pacify citizens who are terrified of potential terror attacks in the aftermath of September 11.
Critics Charge Lack of Professionalism of the TSA
Many people cite the lack of professionalism of TSA agents as proof that they are doing nothing but putting on a show that does little to deter terrorism. The position, which does not require a high school diploma or GED, is often seen as the bottom of the barrel and simply a stepping stone to a better career. The turnover rate for TSA agents is high, and many report being dissatisfied with their work.
According to TSA agents, the job is punctuated by boredom, and agents often horse around while on the job. One agent said that one of the biggest concerns of management is gum chewing, which is dealt with harshly. This agent, who was interviewed anonymously by the New York Post, said that many agents simply don’t show up for work and are still allowed to keep their jobs. This means that at any given time, there are fewer agents available to do the job due to absenteeism.
One of the main complaints is that there are too many screeners and not enough to do. Absenteeism aside, the agency hires far more agents than are needed to secure the airports. This leads to agent boredom which is dangerous for security.
TSA Policies are Reactive
We check travelers to ensure they’re not carrying guns or bombs on planes, so the terrorists commit their acts with box cutters. Then we ban box cutters and the terrorists use shoe bombs. Now we require everyone to take off their shoes, and the terrorists use liquid explosives. The TSA reacts by banning breast milk, body gel, apricot jam and juice boxes. Terrorists put bombs in printer cartridges, so now traveling with cartridges in your carry on is banned. It seems like a game in which the terrorists are always a step ahead.
Those who believe that airport security is a joke posit that poorly trained TSA agents are no match for organized terror organizations who spend years planning their attacks. They also have nearly unlimited sources of income that they can use for surveillance, training and supplies. Experts believe that few agencies are a match for these terror professionals, and that TSA agents are ill-equipped to match wits with real terrorists. The terrorists who struck on 9/11 were carrying items that were permitted on planes at the time.
Critics claim that some of the best measures in the fight against terror require little to no TSA intervention. Securing cockpit doors make it less likely that terrorists can overtake the pilots. Convincing the passengers to fight back in the event of a terror attack can also go a long way in protecting air travelers. Some airlines have even taught flight attendants to keep pots of coffee on reserve to throw in the face of onboard terrorists.
Does Airport Security Really Make Us Safer?
So the question is whether airport security really does make us safer. If anything, invasive measures like body scanners that deliver images of passengers’ naked bodies to TSA agents, pat-downs that invade personal space boundaries and humiliating searches have made people believe that the agency is doing everything possible to maintain security. Complaints, however, abound that the TSA has gone too far and has violated the rights of Americans in an effort to provide greater security. From the woman who was forced to remove her prosthetic breast in a security check to the bladder cancer patient who was doused in his own urine after agents roughly patted his colostomy bag, many Americans feel the agency has gone too far.
Reasons that Critics Charge that Airport Security Does Not Make Us Safer
- Security measures are inconsistent
Currently, fewer than 70 of the nation’s airports have enhanced security features like full body scanners. Even airports with the scanners do not require each passenger to be scanned. Some passengers can simply opt to go through the metal detectors instead.
- Intelligence is more effective than added security
Some of the most effective measures in the fight against terror are those that require increased use of intelligence. Knee-jerk reactive procedures and policies prove less effective, and only serve to alienate travelers. Critics charge that the TSA measures only catch “stupid” terrorists who use obvious methods that are easily detected.
A terrorist running screaming through an airport with a bomb strapped to his chest is the type most likely to be caught by agents. A terrorist who is really determined can use improvised devices to wreak havoc on an airplane. A terrorist can literally steal knives from post-security airport restaurants and bring them onto the plane.
- Terrorists can easily breach the airport
There are many parts of the airport that are virtually untouched by security. Ticket counters, dining and shopping concourses are open to the public. In other nations, visitors are screened before they enter the airport. In some cases, visitors are not allowed onto the airport’s grounds unless they show a ticket or other evidence of official airport business.
- Checkpoint bottlenecks increase risk
Security checkpoints are often clogged with travelers snaking through long lines, taking laptops out of backpacks and slipping off their shoes. Elderly travelers and those with young children may take even longer, slowing down the process and creating a clog of people waiting to be scanned. These traffic backups are ideal for creating chaos, and an intrepid terrorist could simply detonate a bomb at the checkpoint to cause mass casualty.
- The use of stolen passports is surprisingly common
While the TSA regularly checks passports before allowing passengers through security, these passports are rarely, if ever, checked against the Interpol database often lost and stolen passports. This leaves the floodgates open for people to use stolen and altered documents in order to gain access to airports. Security experts have often tested this system by using fake boarding passes in order to gain access to restricted areas of the airport.
- In addition, the chaos involved with security checkpoints makes it easier for criminals to practice their craft. Many thieves have found airport security checkpoints to be a virtual goldmine of cell phones, laptops, jewelry and other valuables. Some will create distractions designed to part travelers with their belongings.
Americans Overwhelmingly Support the TSA
According to a Gallup poll, a majority of Americans believe the TSA is doing a good job of deterring terrorism. More than 54% of those polled said that the TSA is doing an “excellent” job of keeping the skies safe. Among frequent travelers, those approval numbers were even higher. This backs up the TSA’s claims that increased visible security means safer travel for everyone involved.
Critics challenge that upgraded intelligence measures, military spying and government security measures are the reason that terrorists have not been able to create a repeat of 9/11. Among average travelers, however, the TSA is given all of the credit for keeping airports safe. The TSA has enacted new training mandates and policies that help to protect the rights of its travelers. Among one of those measures are new rules about pat downs for children, seniors and the disabled.
Members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Oversight and Government Reform Committee have charged that the TSA is spending too much revenue on technology that does not work. They claim that body scanning machines do little more than traditional metal detectors, and at a cost of nearly $1 billion annually, they are a waste of money. They charge that the technology is so ineffective that its use should be discontinued altogether. Since their introduction, they have no intercepted a single explosive device. According to the Committee, they are mostly responsible for detecting items like nail clippers, keys and bottles of water.
The Power of the Human Touch and Technology
One of the measures that has made airports safer since 9/11 is the increased use of technology in the fight against terror. Facial recognition software is now common in most airports and allows security personnel to identify terrorists before they get near the security checkpoint. Behavioral experts are now standard and airports. These professionals study the behavior of passengers, looking for signs of suspicious behavior. These behaviorists catch mostly drug smugglers, but their expertise has gone a long way in the fight against terrorism.
Another overlooked resource in airport safety is the passengers themselves. Today’s airline passenger is more keen and aware and is more likely to report a suspicious package or individual. Prior to 9/11, flight attendants were taught to cooperate with terrorists in order to stay alive. Now flight attendants receive special training that equips them with the skills they need to engage in aggressive combat with would-be terrorists. There have been several incidents of passengers subduing aggressive fliers and physically detaining them for the duration of the flight.
Undercover police officers, bomb sniffing dogs and advanced baggage screening technology have all made airports safer. The presence of sky marshalls underscores Homeland Security’s commitment to airline safety. All of these measures, combined with the efforts of the TSA, have lead to safer skies for passengers and crew alike.
Some argue, however, that the viability of law enforcement and TSA personnel have lead to a false sense of security that can make it easier for a crime to occur. Critics say that passengers are more likely to trust the actions of the security force and less likely to trust their instincts when it comes to identifying potential terrorists.
All of these questions and concerns lead to one inescapable conclusion. When it comes to keeping airports safe from terrorism, the TSA and the Department of Homeland Security are certainly making it a priority. Since 9/11, there have been no terror attacks on U.S. airports. Opportunity crime is also down, with fewer people reporting being the victims of theft or violence while in the airports.
There has been a push to privatize airport security, taking it out of the hands of Homeland Security and giving it over to private firms to take over the task. Those in support of privatization claim that higher paid and better trained staff will be better equipped to deal with terrorism. They cite the lack of professionalism and short training period of TSA agents as the main reason to turn over the reigns to private companies.
Despite the critics, air travel still remains one of the safest ways to travel. Air incidents are exceedingly rare, and the average traveler is more likely to become injured driving to the airport than they are to be hurt or killed during the course of a flight. Airlines have enacted measures to better train their crew to act in the event of an emergency, while the airports themselves have beefed up security measures.
Increased intelligence measures have also made flying safer, with security experts using intuitive software to flesh out terrorists before they strike. Behavioral specialists study passengers, looking for signs that would indicate that abnormal behavior is occurring. Airport security still has a long way to go, but these improvement have made the skies the safest they have been since 9/11.
Passengers also report an increased sense of security while traveling, and ridership has improved following the dip in air travel after 2001. New intelligence, better screeners and increased awareness has created an atmosphere of vigilance and a commitment to safety. These measures have greatly increased the safety in United States airports and promise to cut down on the number of adverse incidents drastically. There has never been a better time to fly in the United States and abroad.