(Note: the author is a Canadian living in PNG and Chile, and travels the world for business and pleasure.)
Trigger warning – The rant contains commentary about the events of 9/11 that some may consider contrarian.
So – I travel quite a bit for work. And that means that I have a pretty good handle on airport security in a wide range of jurisdictions. I also happened to work for many years for a large Customs organization at a major frontier port. So I know a thing or two about policing and searching people – not as much as a peace officer, but more than a casual observer.
I am sick and tired of the TSA, and the paranoid view of the world they have. It is time for Americans, and those of us who live in countries whose airport security tends to be led by the nose by the TSA requirements (because the frequency of flights between Canada and the US, for example, suggests that it makes more sense for everyone to operate at the same level) to stand up and say ‘enough’.
As background, I recently flew IAD-LAX-SYD-CNS-POM. All on American Airlines and/or Qantas, code share. When I landed in Sydney, Qantas paged me as I left the plane and let me know that one of my bags wasn’t on board. They didn’t TELL me that the bag had been detained at LAX, but they might as well have. My bag WASN’T lost – they knew exactly where it was. That one bag wasn’t boarded on the plane, and my other bag was cleared to go.
Now – I knew that the contents of the detained bag were rather atypical. I had just taken a gemstone faceting course, and spent a couple of days learning basic gemstone carving techniques. I had bought a set of carving tools – consisting of a Dremel hand-held grinder, a bewildering array of various diamond-tipped burrs for shaping, polishing do-dads, and several syringes of diamond polishing pastes, and pots of diamond powder, that are packaged in those little glass vials often used by vendors of narcotics (at least on TV). I also had gone antique-hunting and bought a glass paperweight – and I knew from previous experience that paperweights must look funny on an X-Ray, because I’ve been stopped and queried about them many times in the past.
Miraculously, I received the bag 24 hours later, in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea – Qantas, and the local ground staff are to be commended. When I opened the bag, it had the TSA ‘greeting card’ saying they’d searched it and sorry for the inconvenience. I did an inventory, and everything was there – although they did a terrible job of repacking my stuff. I had packed all the funny looking objects in a plastic tub, and this had been pawed through, and many of the grinding bits taken out of their packages and left to roll around loose. My paperweight had been unwrapped and just left to roll around loosely in the bag.
I had packed the Dremel tool and the plastic bin at the bottom of the bag (it is a backpack, so it has a clearly defined ‘bottom’ section) and put clothes on top of it – the bag was returned to me basically upside down, with my clothes balled up everywhere. They had opened at least one of the syringes of diamond paste (presumably for field NIC testing for drugs or other substances). I haven’t weighed my little pots of diamond powder, but I believe they have at least been opened.
So – they had a little party with my backpack in LAX, under the guise of TSA activity. However – while I agree that the contents of my bag may look a little suspect to a CUSTOMS person, with the mandate to look at drug paraphernalia – TSA is supposed to be looking for stuff that is UNSAFE to transport. And I don’t believe that US Customs routinely performs export checks of luggage on Australian-destined flights. I suspect I would be hard-pressed to bring down a plane with a syringe of paste and a few small diamond burrs like your dentist uses, with my bag in the cargo hold. This looks to me like an egregious stretch of what TSA is supposed to be about. They’re supposed to be here to protect us from terrorist hijackers and bombers. They don’t have a mandate to look into the affairs of Customs. Presumably if they look at your bag and find a kilo of coke, they’ll inform the relevant authorities. However, my objection is that what happened to me, I believe shows that their scope is creeping into far broader policing activity – in the absence of a genuine and palpable terrorist threat targeting air travel. Not being a drug smuggler or consumer, I don’t really care – but the sneaky insidious added layer of unnecessary policing, especially by untrained and comparably unskilled workers into policing should worry everyone – not just a loopy ‘small L’ libertarian like me.
In 2001, the US was rocked by an attack of incredible viciousness and horror. Nearly 3000 people were killed. Thousands more wounded or psychologically traumatised by the events. An estimated $10 billion in damage was caused directly by the attacks. The TSA was founded as a direct knee-jerk reaction to the 9/11 attacks. However, has the TSA actively thwarted ANY further attempt at a similar attack? Sure, they’ve taken away a bajillion bottles of water, countless pocketknives and various pointy objects, and fondled the buttocks of innumerable passengers. But can they point to a single terrorist that they’ve caught packing a bomb through an airport checkpoint? Not that I can find out. Indeed, the wingnut who tried to light his shoes on fire got through TSA, and the result has been that now throughout the US (thankfully not in many other places) we all have to take our shoes off to go through security.
It has been 13 years since 9/11. The annual budget for TSA is roughly 8 Billion a year. So we’ve spent 104 Billion on TSA activity since 9/11 (roughly – perhaps more was spent right after 9/11, and I haven’t researched the effects of inflation). And apprehended – nothing. Arguably, the fact the US became so anal-retentive with airport security is the reason – however this is a hollow argument. All this means is that ‘the bad guys’ have decided that getting cute with box cutters and driving planes into buildings is no longer a soft target. This means that the next attack will be MORE creative, and will involve a different mechanism/vector.
It is alleged in Public Administration, that one cannot put a value on human lives. At the risk of being callous, I believe that spending 11X the amount an attack costs – with no end or limit in sight, no one actively saying ‘OK, I think we proved our point. Maybe we don’t have to live in a self-imposed police state any more. Lets move back to airport Defcon 2 and see how things go.’ – the terrorists have indeed won.
Because they have hamstrung a beautiful country, and impacted human efficiency around the world. All from one horrific event, 13 years ago.
I have a very good friend, who was at the Pentagon on 9/11. He is a staunch defender of TSA, and will disagree with my points raised, citing that we have to take these kinds of steps, regardless of cost. I too have been directly affected by terrorism – my convoy was blown up in Afghanistan in 2006, and I’m lucky to be here today. But I would rather have a little freedom and liberty back, than live in perpetual fear. The cost is too great both in dollars and in emotional investment.