Who are you going to believe, the TSA or your lying eyes?

I stumbled upon the blog TSA News because of an intriguingly titled post called “The purpose of TSA is what it does“. The title is based on Anthony Stafford Beer‘s POSIWID concept: The purpose of a system is what it does. Beers (1926-2002) worked in operations research and management science, but what he really did was design and analyze systems. POSIWID should resonate with anyone who’s written a computer program or put a business process in place. Whether you call them side effects or unintended consequences, what a system does tells you more about its true nature than intentions or expectations, plans or designs.

With this background in mind, TSA News reviews the all-too-familiar litany of what TSA does, and concludes its purpose is:

To label four-year-old girls suspects and give them nightmares; to organize travelers into long lines in which they must wait; to create and examine nude images of travelers; to rub the genitalia of each patdown selectee four times through his or her clothing; to create a Pavlovian response that links baggage X-ray machines to removing one’s shoes; to spend extraordinary sums of money beyond what travelers pay for their own humiliation; to ensure compliance with rules whose purpose is opaque; to trigger traumatic memories in sexual assault survivors; to provide employment for anyone willing to put their hands down the pants of strangers; to employ large numbers of people whose jobs are to shout orders at travelers or ensure that people only traverse doorways in one direction; and so on.

To be fair, we must state that the purpose of TSA also includes removing guns, knives, tools, purses with gun insignias, four-inch GI Joe guns, light sabers, suspicious cupcakes, and large bottles of shampoo or water from the bags of travelers. The TSA certainly does do a lot of this.

In summary:

The purpose of the TSA is to virtually strip-search and sexually humiliate the flying public, every single day. That is what the TSA does.

TSA News also points out what TSA does not do. In particular, it does not capture terrorists. Not a single one. And it does not confiscate weapons from passengers intending to destroy or hijack their flight. On the other hand, TSA does apprehend and detain passengers who complain too strenuously or too nakedly about being groped. And they do detect about half of the contraband inadvertently carried by innocent passengers. We know those passengers were innocent because they weren’t charged as terrorists. Coincidentally, the half of the contraband not detected by the TSA was also in the possession of non-terrorists.

Now, as the blog notes, the argument might be made that the purpose of TSA is to deter attacks on planes, and how do we know it’s not doing that? The blogger says the idea strains his credulity:

There’s a cadre of violent extremists in the U.S. who have been sitting on their hands doing nothing for a decade because of the TSA its defenders would like you to believe. Yet these extremists apparently have no interest in attacking unprotected targets like schools, malls, ports, liquefied natural gas plants, sports events, buses, subways, or the unsecured areas of airport terminals. If you believe that, I know a great bridge with a low asking price you may be interested in.

We can’t talk about TSA’s operation and purpose without referring to Kip Hawley‘s article that appeared a few weeks ago in The Wall Street Journal. Hawley was head of the TSA for 3½ years, and so when he writes “Why Airport Security Is Broken — And How To Fix It“, he commands some attention. His well-reasoned 5-part program:

  1. No more banned items
  2. Allow all liquids
  3. Give TSA officers more flexibility and rewards for initiative, and hold them accountable
  4. Eliminate baggage fees
  5. Randomize security

His article is worth a read; his ideas are worth a try.


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