Why the TSA Is Right, and Markey and Schumer Are Wrong, About the Little Knives

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Through the past decade I've argued that the most depressing and insidious aspect of America's "security theater" response to the 9/11 attacks is its ratchet-like nature. You can always add new security measures, or more precisely things that give the appearance of increased safety. You have a very hard time ever taking them away. 


Thus Richard Reid puts some explosives in his shoes in 2001, and nearly a dozen years later tens of millions of U.S. passengers are still taking their shoes off in security lines. (They don't do this in most other countries.) Officials thwart a plot to use liquid explosives in 2006, and ever since then we've had the "get rid of that bottle of water" rule and all associated effects.

The problematic point, again, is the one-way nature of these security reflexes. Politicians and regulators have every incentive to add them, and also every incentive not to take them away. For background on the ratchet of security, see two items from 2010 here and here, plus this interview with the head of the TSA from about the same time (plus this).

All this is why I congratulate the TSA for its gutsiness in daring to move back the ratchet, in saying that it's not going to worry about little knives on planes. Patrick Smith, of "Ask the Pilot," summarized why this makes sense when the decision was announced a few days ago:
TSA ... might not be willing to admit it, but they seem to have come to terms with two simple truths.

The first is that a potentially deadly sharp object -- a knife, if you will -- can be improvised from virtually anything, including no shortage of materials found on airplanes. Even a child knows this.... 

The second truth is that, from a terrorist's standpoint, the September 11th blueprint is no longer a useful strategy.... 

Conventional wisdom holds that the attacks succeeded because 19 hijackers took advantage of a weakness in airport security by smuggling boxcutters onto jetliners. And conventional wisdom is wrong.

What the men actually took advantage of was a weakness in our thinking, and our presumptions of what a hijacking was, and how one would be expected to unfold, based on the decades-long track record of hijackings.
As Smith goes on to explain, and as has been discussed here over the years, "another 9/11 attack" will never occur. The flight crew won't allow it; the passengers won't allow it; the element of unimagined surprise was gone within hours of the original attack, when the passengers of United Flight 93 heroically took on the hijackers rather than letting their plane be used as a guided bomb. 

If you want to know why this move was gutsy and why the TSA deserves -- and needs -- public support for this kind of choice, you could reflect on the panicky political reaction it provoked. Just before leaving Shanghai for D.C. I caught some of it on Piers Morgan's show. Chuck Schumer, Ed Markey, John McCain, and Morgan himself were all upset that the TSA would make this "risky" move. I don't yet see a transcript, but The Verge has a summary. For instance here is Schumer's view, from a statement:
"Now is not the time for reduced vigilance," he said in a statement, "or to place additional burdens on TSA agents who should be looking for dangerous items, not wasting time measuring the length of a knife blade."
Oh please. This is less like "reduced vigilance" than like "sensible risk assessment." The main danger the TSA needs to worry about with airplanes is explosives on board, whether carried into the cabin or checked in cargo. If it tries to guard against every conceivable other threat, including 3-inch knives, from every single member of the flying public, it might as well not let anyone fly at all. The otherwise-admirable Ed Markey gives us the reaction that would keep TSA from ever undoing the ratchet:
"In the confined environment of an airplane, even a small blade in the hands of a terrorist can lead to disaster."

Patrick Smith makes the sanity-restoring counter point:

We need to get past the emotionally charged style of security-think that ultimately makes us less safe. These new measures are sensible, and meanwhile TSA can, or should, concentrate or more potent threats to safety -- your safety as well as mine -- such as bombs and explosives.

As does former TSA director Kip Hawley, here. Meanwhile politicians who give in to fraidy-cat reactions make it harder ever to evolve a sustainable security policy. That would be one in which we guard against the most catastrophic threats -- in the airlines' case, onboard explosions -- and concentrate on dangerous people -- while accepting other risks as the price of a free, non-police-state life. The politicians now fretting about the TSA have slowed the process of restoring normal free American life. 


I don't often find myself saying this, but: good, brave decision, people at TSA.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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