Editor’s Note: Jonathan Cristol is a research fellow in the Levermore Global Scholars Program at Adelphi University and senior fellow at the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College. Follow him on Twitter @jonathancristol. The views expressed are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
CNN has reported that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is considering eliminating security screening at “more than 150 small and medium-sized airports” across the United States. Passengers would only go through security screening when they arrive at larger airports to board airplanes that hold more than 60 people.
Predictably, the responses to this report range from incredulity to acrimony to outrage – and it is far from certain that the proposal will ever become official policy. Although these eliminations appear to have been proposed, in part, as cost-cutting measures by the current administration, it is important to bear in mind that significant security changes made after 9/11 are still in place protecting travelers. As such, we do not need the additional security measures at regional airports to keep us safe.
The most significant airplane security change made after 9/11 was to reinforce cockpit doors on commercial planes. This feature makes it impossible for a terrorist to turn an airplane into a cruise missile by gaining access to the cockpit and either flying planes into targets or forcing a pilot to do so.
It does not make it impossible to turn an airplane into a suicide bomb. Then again, that risk exists on almost every mode of public transportation – and I do not experience anywhere close to the same level of security checks on other modes of transportation.
Almost every day I ride the subway in cars jam packed with people. At least one day per week I take a commuter railroad. Several times per year I ride a crowded train to Washington, Philadelphia or Boston. My bags are never searched, and I never go through a magnetometer before getting on (though the authorities do have the right to search me and my belongings, and they sometimes have bomb-sniffing dogs). On occasion, I wait in a long, slow-moving airport security line full of people who have not yet gone through airport security.
Terrorists could just as easily, probably far more easily, blow up my subway car than they could blow up my airplane (and there have been many instances of terrorists opening fire at airport check-in desks and even at security checkpoints).
But the reduced security on other modes of transportation makes sense for two major reasons. First is that the threat of terrorism inside the United States is, and has been, overblown. A report from the New America Foundation showed that in the 16 years after 9/11, only 103 people were killed by terrorists inside the United States.
This is not because TSA screeners have prevented so many other attacks. New York University Professor Harvey Molotch, in his book “Against Security,” writes that, “The vast airport apparatus has not stopped a single incident of mayhem; foiling of plots comes from other forces, such as advance intelligence and actions on board.” For example, Israel provided intelligence to Australian authorities that helped prevent an ISIS plane bombing in 2017. And shoe bomber Richard Reid and underwear bomber Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab were foiled by passengers on board.
The second reason why I am not dodging explosions on my way to work every day is thanks to the US intelligence community, including the New York Police Department. Good intelligence, good detective work and good police work are what actually prevent attacks. Though we may never know precisely how effective it is, we can be sure that there are those who wish to do us harm and a significant number of those plots are foiled regularly by coordinated efforts across the security community.
TSA security screening is security theater. The beleaguered agency has a terrible track record – with failure rates ranging from 80-95%, according to ABC News. To be perfectly clear, TSA agents, their equipment and their processes fail to detect banned items in carry-on luggage in almost every instance. They are, however, extraordinarily adept at locating toothpaste.
However, not all theater is bad, and the TSA serves a critical purpose. Screening is necessary for people with regular access to aircraft, such as mechanics and other airport workers, and to prevent against the lone wolf with a (possibly 3-D printed) gun in his backpack. It is also important to respond to specific threats based on specific intelligence, and I imagine that the TSA could, would and should set up screenings at small airports in response to specific intelligence.
Just as the risk of terrorism is not equally spread between Manhattan, New York, and Manhattan, Kansas, it is not equally spread between a regional flight from Boise, Idaho, to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and an A380 from New York to London.
There are good, competent people at TSA who do their best to protect people from a wide range of threats. We should refocus their efforts on actual threats – not regional theater.