It’s safe to say the Transport Security Administration – the TSA – is one of America’s most reviled organisations.
So it’s notable when a former TSA director publicly describes the system the agency administers as “broken” as Kip Hawley did in the Wall Street Journal on the weekend.
More than a decade after 9/11, it is a national embarrassment that our airport security system remains so hopelessly bureaucratic and disconnected from the people whom it is meant to protect. Preventing terrorist attacks on air travel demands flexibility and the constant reassessment of threats. It also demands strong public support, which the current system has plainly failed to achieve.
The underlying question in Kip’s article is “are Americans prepared to accept risk?” The indications are that they aren’t.
One of the conceits of the late twentieth Century was we could engineer risk out of our society; insurance, collateral debt obligations, regulations and technology would ensure we and our assets were safe and comfortable from the world’s ravages.
If everything else failed, help was just an emergency phone call away. Usually that help was government funded.
An overriding lessons from the events of September 11, 2001 and subsequent terrorist attacks in London and Bali is that these risks are real and evolving.
The creation of the TSA, along with the millions of new laws and billions of security related spending in the US and the rest of the world – much of it one suspect misguided – was to create the myth that the government is eliminating the risk of terrorist attacks.
It’s understandable that governments would do this – the modern media loves blame so it’s a no win situation that politicians and public servant find themselves in.
Should a terrorist smuggle plastic explosive onto a plane disguised as baby food then the government will be vilified and careers destroyed.
Yet we’re indignant that mothers with babies are harassed about the harmless supplies they are carrying with them.
It’s a no-win.
This is not an American problem, in Australia we see the same thing with the public vilification of a group of dam engineers blamed for not holding back the massive floods that inundated Brisbane at the end of 2010.
While we should be critical of governments in the post 9/11 era as almost every administration – regardless of their claimed ideology – saw it as an opportunity to extend their powers and spending, we are really the problem.
Today’s society refuses to accept risk; the risk that bad people will do bad things to us, the risk that storms will batter our homes or the risk that will we do our dough on what we were told was a safe investment.
So we demand “the gummint orta do summint”. And the government does.
The sad thing is the risk doesn’t go away. Risk is like toothpaste, squeeze the tube in one place and it oozes out somewhere else.
While Kip Hawley is right in that we need to change how we evaluate and respond to risk, it assumes that we are prepared to accept that Bad Things Happen regardless of what governments do. It’s dubious that we’re prepared to do that.