By Walter E. Williams
Published April 16, 2005
Hundreds of readers responded to last week's column about airport security. These were letters from Americans who fit no terrorist profile -- airline pilots, mothers traveling with children, disabled people, elderly and other law-abiding Americans -- and yet were frisked, groped and hassled.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) behaves as if all passengers and all baggage pose an equal security threat, and that's stupid, because not nearly all passengers and baggage pose a security threat. They've seized articles such as tweezers, toy soldiers, hat pins, sewing scissors and other items they deem threatening to flight security.
I have solved my problem with the TSA. They have their procedures, and I have mine. Mine include minimizing my exposure to stupidity. Therefore, where I formerly took a commercial flight three or four times a month, over the last three years I've reduced it to once, maybe twice, a year.
Some of the letters reported more stupidity on behalf of the TSA than I imagined. I'll highlight some of them:
One person wrote that he, his wife and son were stopped, questioned and searched at length by TSA and FBI officials. It turned out there was a terror alert for a person named Harry Smith (not the true name). The couple's 5-year-old son's name was also Harry Smith. How much of a brain do you think it requires for the FBI and TSA to immediately realize their 5-year-old son was the wrong Harry Smith?
Another writer wrote about his 88-year-old, hunched-over, arthritis-ridden father, barely able to walk, being searched, questioned and scanned and, as a result, brought to tears. Airline pilots going through security are searched and asked to empty their pockets, even though they wear photo identification tags and the TSA accepts that they are indeed pilots. Here's my question: If a pilot wanted to fly a plane into a building, would he need a weapon to do so?
There's little threat of another September 11, 2001-style, hijacking. First, sky marshals are randomly assigned to flights. But more important if there were a hijacking, passengers, knowing they were being flown to their death, would subdue the hijackers. Providing greater incentive is the likelihood an F-14 fighter jet would fly up to shoot down the plane.
There is a greater threat of a bomb placed onboard. The TSA's seizure of harmless personal items from passengers is a waste of resources. Fortunately, the TSA now permits some things once banned, i.e., knitting needles, corkscrews, cigar cutters.
Let's analyze the TSA economically. It costs TSA little to harass passengers. Screeners have an eight-hour-a-day job. So if you must wait in long lines, be harassed and miss your flight, what's it to them, considering passengers' docile response?
Many Americans accept the TSA policy, saying it makes them feel safer. I would ask them how much safer they would feel seeing an 88-year-old arthritic man, barely able to walk, given the treatment. Asking if every passenger is a security threat is similar to a munitions manufacturer asking if every hand grenade is good. A munitions manufacturer wouldn't pull the pin on every hand grenade to see if it was a dud. He would devise a test to avoid the huge costs of assuming each hand grenade had an equal probability of being a dud.
Similarly, the TSA should devise a test to determine which passenger is likelier to pose a security threat. A good start might be the characteristics of previous terrorist passengers.
Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University and a nationally syndicated columnist.