Welcome to the (TSA) machine

Not so long ago, there ran a common, bitter joke that we would all one day have to fly naked. Anybody laughing at that one now?

“We’re taking the fight to the terrorists abroad, so we don’t have to face them here at home.” President George W. Bush, June 9, 2005. Of all the nose-stretchers W ever told, this one rings the most hollow in 2010, with American air travellers said to be in a state of “revolt” against the system of industrialized sexual assault that has been implemented in their airports. The more the United States takes the fight to the terrorists abroad, the hotter the war being raged against the travelling civilian by the Transportation Security Administration. Not so long ago, there ran a common, bitter joke that we would all one day have to fly naked. Anybody laughing at that one now?

The term “revolt” is not exactly freighted with the violent overtones it once was. The most radical of the revolutionaries who have captured the American imagination in recent weeks is a fellow named John Tyner, whose blow for liberty took the form of refusing to submit to either being photographed in the nude or subjected to an “enhanced” groping, and then, most treacherously of all, leaving the “security area” of the airport without permission—a federal offence that could see him fined up to $11,000. He didn’t black the eye or batter the groin of any TSA personnel, and he certainly didn’t barrage Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano with rotten eggs and filth.

There is probably no sense blaming the employees of the TSA, although if we’re really talking with “revolt” as our underlying moral premise, not being blameworthy doesn’t mean you are not an appropriate target of abuse. The airport rage of Americans is being fuelled by legitimately illogical, cruel, dumbass moves by frontline TSA workers—errors that, for the most part, represent the inflexible application of rules in situations that either (1) were not anticipated, (2) do not arise often enough to be covered in training, or (3) simply aren’t amenable to handling according to a script or a 20-word official doctrine.

In other words, America is keeping its airports safe the way it builds its cars and fights its wars: on the assembly-line model. It has been presented with an enormous responsibility to create safety, or the appearance of safety, over a huge universe of flights and passengers; it probably cannot, unlike Israel, approach this problem by training a small corps of intelligent persons and leaving them free to improvise, applying general principles using nuance and extensive local knowledge.

Given that merely living with the threat level we were all exposed to without much complaint in the 1980s is no longer an option, the Republic has to break down the great task of making-safe into small chunks that can be taught to people with IQs of 85—and taught by people with IQs of 105. The U.S. Army helped liberate Europe, a couple of times over, by means of the same industrial methods. (There’s a reason that in both the British-Canadian fighter and bomber commands during the Second World War, pilots and other crew who displayed particular talent were made instructors very quickly; not infrequently they became instructors of instructors.)

But generals and factory owners have continuous Darwinian pressure helping them with the organizing of human capital. Airport security officers aren’t easy to evaluate, even collectively—we don’t know how much value there is in having a TSA at all. Individually, the workers are like the household tiger repellent in the old joke. Are they of any use? Well, when was the last time you saw any tigers around here?

Without competitive pressure, any industrial apparatus becomes increasingly bloated and clumsy. The market for subsidized tiger repellent is potentially unlimited. TSA is going to get worse before it gets better—especially with new arbitrary prohibitions being fed into the system every time there’s a failed terrorist attack.