Air travel is often the most efficient way to get around, and we enjoy the idea of sitting back and relaxing while we travel at over 500 miles an hour to our destination. While the travel itself is usually a quick and painless process, we accept that in addition to our voyage, we often have to spend many extra hours in the airport. The TSA recommends that all passengers arrive at least two hours before their flight– three in the case of international travel. Those extra hours are mainly reserved for sometimes painfully long airport security lines. As a frequent flyer who has experienced varying levels of airport security, especially in international airports where the procedures are much more relaxed, I begin to question if the airport security designed in response to the events of September 11th are really worth the time and stress they expense in the process.
In my experience, I have been pulled out of security lines various times for carrying items banned by TSA. To be specific, I had one bottle of orange juice and a can of aerosol dry shampoo confiscated on separate occasions. I once experienced a quick interrogation by a TSA officer when I placed my backpack on top of my laptop, rather than in a separate bin. I would gladly sacrifice this extra time and a bit of stress if I knew that procedures like this made my air travel safer, but I am not truly convinced that it does. I have also witnessed many questionable items make it through security and onto my flight. For example, a woman on my trans-continental flight to San Diego managed to get a sewing kit into the air. While I did not truly feel threatened by this small woman yielding her knitting needles and a small pair of scissors, it did support my suspicion about the legitimacy of TSA security.
This brings us to the topic of security theatre. Security theatre is the idea that we feel protected, even though we are not. We experience this in many aspects of our daily lives, like locking our doors even though we know a rigid credit card can easily pop it open. We password and fingerprint protect our mobile banking apps, yet we leave our bank statements in our mailboxes where anyone could easily access our personal information. The point is that we accept these security measures in our lives without second thought because we want to feel safe, even if we reasonably know that they do little to protect us from real threats. In the case of TSA and airport security, we have to sacrifice our time and privacy to make this illusion possible.
Adam Conover hosts a TV show called Adam Ruins Everything, in which he investigates and debunks common misconceptions about everyday ideas and experiences. In his episode titled Why the TSA Doesn’t Stop Terrorist Attacks, he explores this idea of security theatre and examines the true effect of TSA on protecting plane-riders from terrorist attacks. According to Conover, the current procedures put in place in response to the 9/11 attack are largely just a waste of time and money. In reality, TSA does little to prevent potential threats from boarding airplanes with the rest of us. Conover explains a situation where the Department of Homeland Security attempted to test the effectiveness of TSA by planting mock weapons and explosives on investigative personnel. In the test TSA was only able to identify 5% of these potential threats, while the remaining 95% made it through undetected.
I believe that some level of security theatre is necessary and does cause passengers to be more at ease during their travel, but I have a hard time sacrificing hours of my day knowing that my flight is not truly any safer for it. I certainly do not intend to deter anyone from traveling by airplane or doing so with a safe piece of mind. However, I think it is important to be aware of these facts in order to mitigate ignorance surrounding security theatre and to ensure that you are taking your own precautions to protect your personal safety.