After dropping my wife and one of our sons at the airport Wednesday for a trip to see relatives, watching from afar as they went through the familiar TSA dance, I was struck by the concept of faith.
At airports, people line up the way I remember my classmates lining up for vaccinations in elementary school back in the ‘60s, with grim-faced resignation and a vague hope that the pain the school nurse was inflicting somehow would be worth the collective good it would cause.
But at least statistics can be found to back up that hope. The same can’t be said for the faith we put in the airport ritual that signals the start of any vacation or business trip.
In a couple of months we will mark the 18th anniversary of 9/11. The question is whether airports are any safer today than on that awful morning.
For one answer, you can visit the TSA’s own blog, at tsa.gov. There you will find photos of guns and other weapons, both real and simulated, recently confiscated at airports across the land. “Between May 27 and June 2,” the blog says, “TSA screened 16.9 million passengers and found 95 firearms in carry-on bags. Of the 95 firearms discovered, 83 were loaded and 30 had a round chambered.”
To be clear, that’s over just a six-day period.
When you look at the problem this way, finding air travelers with loaded guns seems like shooting very large fish in a barrel. In all of last year, the TSA reported finding 4,239 guns in carry-on bags, which was 7 percent more than the year before, the Milwaukee Journal recently reported in a story that focused on 10 guns having been found at the local airport so far this year.
But a more unsettling way to look at this is to ask how many more weapons got past the inspectors. The last time the Department of Homeland Security reported the results of an undercover operation designed to sneak things past the TSA, in 2017, it found a 70 percent failure rate. Seven out of 10 times, they could get fake guns, knives and bombs down the conveyor belt without any problem.
America is a gun-friendly place. Most of the confiscated weapons belong to people who carry them on a regular basis, forget they have them at the airport and pose little threat to anyone else, except perhaps in the event of an accidental discharge. But that kind of failure rate raises questions about vulnerability to people whose intentions may not be so benign.
The Deseret News reported this week that the TSA has begun using facial recognition technology to help recognize bad people at airports. An assistant administrator at the agency said this will speed up the airport experience. It could be used in many places other than security checkpoints, such as baggage drops, check-in stations and gates.
The agency hails it as another tool, but history shows it may be just another toy to build a false sense of faith while posing a serious risk to privacy. Tests of the technology, including a famous one by the ACLU last year that incorrectly identified 28 members of Congress as criminals, are not encouraging. Meanwhile, the TSA and law enforcement will collect a database of American faces massive enough to make George Orwell’s imagination blush.
If you have sent a loved one off on a flight, as I did, you might feel a renewed, intense interest in getting this right, and perhaps a sense of resignation that any effort involving humans trying to pick criminals from among millions of ordinary travelers is doomed to be error-prone.
That may be especially true given the monotony of the job, as well as reports that morale among TSA employees is extremely low, while turnover is high.
We have not seen another airport-related terrorist attack to rival the enormity of 9/11. That’s a fact that can’t easily be dismissed, but it may have much more to do with intelligence efforts outside airports than with X-rays of luggage.
In the end, having faith in the system is good. Without it, air travel would collapse, along with the economy. But Americans should demand the kind of accountability that ensures that faith is not misplaced.