Thanksgiving is on Thursday, but I think the most interesting thing that will happen this week is National Opt-Out Day on Wednesday, which is generally the busiest travel day of the year. In response to the TSAs new enhanced techniques, which give you the choice between having a stranger gaze at a naked picture of you, being searched in a way that could arguably be prosecuted as aggravated criminal sexual conduct, or facing a hefty fine for leaving the security area, a lot of people are planning to opt out of the nude scans or opt out of air travel altogether. This should draw attention to the sad fact that the TSA actually imperils our safety.
As my sometimes-coauthor Steven Horwitz has pointed out, driving is, mile for mile, more dangerous than flying even when we take the threat of terrorism into account. As I argued last week and as Bruce Schneier has been arguing for years, the TSA is an exercise in security theater that consumes a lot of resources, wastes a lot of time, and makes us no safer. In this post, Schneier points to data suggesting that if in fact reports of the cancer-causing properties of the machines radiation are accuratesixteen cancer deaths per billion passengers that go through the machinesthe machines are actually deadlier than the terrorists.
By now, you have probably read the horror stories about the cancer survivor who was told to remove her prosthetic breast, the gentleman with the urostomy bag whose TSA screening left him soaked in his own urine, or the woman whose child was taken by the TSA for additional screening.
You might have seen YouTube videos of children being terrorized by TSA screeners. I write this as my own children sleep. After I saw this video of a three-year old being accosted by a TSA screener, I realized that I would be failing as a father and as a citizen if I didnt help stop this lunacy.
All of the TSAs theatrics are for nothing. The TSA exists to send a signal about who is in charge, and it is to present the illusion that the government is doing something to keep us safe. Note that this is the same government that put a spike in what would have actually been a serious step toward improved security: a policy analysis market that would have allowed people to trade terrorism contracts. The fact that we dont have a terrorism contracts market (which would fight terrorism) while we do have now-mandatory lewdness at TSA checkpoints (which wont) suggests that enhanced security measures have little to do with safety.
The new TSA screening techniques are especially outrageous, but their screening techniques have always been degrading. Its not just degrading for the passengers. This is a degrading experience for the TSA screeners themselves because they are doing humiliating things to people who have no meaningful choice once they get to the checkpoint. As we are learning from the John Tyner investigation, the choice is a nude scan, a borderline sexual assault, or a $10,000 fine. As we are also learning from the fact that the TSA is now investigating Tyner, they arent afraid to wield their power over others.
Ive been fortunate in that I dont have a horror story involving abject humiliation or anything more than inconvenience and annoyance. Yet. My sister told me that she was once escorted to a private room where the screeners tried to argue that her shirt was actually a jacket. I once objected to a TSA screener that I didnt think there was any way this was constitutional. She responded that she was just doing her job. Others sometimes respond that they are just following orders. If I may be so bold, a job in which you routinely harass and humiliate others is not a job worth having. An order to touch someone elses genitalia as part of the security theater ritual is not an order worth following.
I will be interested in seeing what Opt-Out Day accomplishes. I, for one, have opted out: I bought bus tickets for some of my holiday travel earlier today. The TSA has been encroaching on our liberty, our safety, and our prosperity for some time now. Fortunately, people are realizing that it is time for the madness to stop. You might think some of us are overreacting. If you think the new security techniques are a good idea and are willing to trade liberty for the illusion of security, then I can do no better than Samuel Adams: may your chains sit lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that you were our countrymen.
Art Carden is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California and an Associate Professor of Economics at Samford Universitys Brock School of Business.