Rounding out our "love for the TSA" theme

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Don't know how to explain it, but over the past week I've received a large amount of correspondence all with the same gripe about the Transportation Security Administration: its role as enforcer of class-inequality among the airborne traveling public. (Previously on the TSA here.) For instance, this sample note, from a military official with whom I've usually corresponded about Iraq policy and so forth:

"My big puzzle/complaint with TSA:  how can they enforce and man discriminatory lines in the airport check in?  If someone is paying United more for a first class seat they can enjoy better service and seating on United--but in going through gov't run, TSA-manned security, how can there be a first class line with faster security checks?  It's a clearly wrong, illegal practice.

"I protested it once--going through first class line with my cheap seat ticket, and refusing to go back, pointing out that this is a government security service, not the airline, and its illegal for gov't to discriminate for a business.  They called security police, I continued arguing for 10 minutes, got escorted through, then subjected to thorough bag searches despite having waved my military ID around.  I had plenty of time to waste on this, and it did no good apparently (unless they've stopped this practice at Las Vegas airport).  They may argue that its the airport folks who man the front part of line, but that's often not true, and it is always TSA folks at the security end of the line--they are illegally discriminating."

Thanks to my travel back and forth from China in recent years, I have a million-zillion miles on United and therefore am in favor of any class inequality that might favor high-mileage customers like me. But I recognize that having public officials doing the favoring is unseemly. This is the next-to-last straw in judging the TSA an experiment that desperately needs to be rethought. The last straw comes from Patrick Smith, of the always-excellent "Ask the Pilot" site on Salon, who asks pointedly whether the intrusive and expensive TSA checklines are doing any good at all. Read his whole column for details, but here is the gist [my emphasis added:

"The novelty of the Sept. 11 attacks notwithstanding, the primary threat to commercial planes is, was and shall remain the smuggling aboard of explosives, which is what happened on Pan Am 103 [the Lockerbie explosion twenty years ago whose instigator was recently set free]. The bomb came onboard in a suitcase. The hijack paradigm changed forever on 9/11, rendering the inflight takeover concept unworkable for a terrorist....

"Yet whether by virtue of incompetence or willful ignorance, TSA continues to waste untold time and untold millions of dollars on a tedious, zero-tolerance fixation with blades and sharps. This does nothing to make us safer, and in fact draws security resources away from worthy pursuits.

"Yes, TSA scans most bags for explosives. Mandates were put in place after 9/11 that have greatly increased the percentage of bags that are run through high-tech detectors, with a goal of screening all of them. But eight years later, screening is still not fully comprehensive. It does not yet include 100 percent of luggage and cargo, and procedures remain inadequate at many overseas airports from which thousands of U.S.-registered jetliners depart each week. Neither is there widespread screening for explosive materials that somebody can carry on his or her person. Good luck getting a hobby knife through a concourse checkpoint, while a pocket full of Semtex is unlikely to be noticed....

"There is a level of inherent risk that we simply must learn to accept. But, if we are going to have an airport security apparatus, and if we are going to devote millions of tax dollars to the cause of thwarting attacks, can we please do it smartly and at least improve our odds? Am I the only one who finds it maddening, and even a little scary, that we can't get this right? Is it not a national disgrace that TSA should spend its time confiscating butter knives from uniformed pilots rather than focusing on deadly threats with a long historical precedent?

"Where are the voices of protest? As I've said before, the airlines ought to be speaking out and pressuring TSA to revise its policies. I know it puts them in a tough spot, liability-wise -- carriers don't want to be perceived as opposing security, even when that security isn't helpful -- but much of what people despise about flying pertains to the TSA rigmarole.

"And passengers, for their part, are apparently content with, or at least resigned to, the idea of security theater in lieu of the real thing. Indeed, rather than demand or expect change, hundreds of thousands of Americans have paid good money for the chance to simply circumvent the hassle of TSA."

Amen. Now, if there were only some way to channel the surplus emotion from anti-health-care-reform "town meetings" and direct it toward the excesses of "security theater."


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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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