The Illogical TSA

According to a recent article in the LA Times,

TSA teams are increasingly conducting searches and screenings at train stations, subways, ferry terminals and other mass transit locations around the country.

and the Department of Homeland Security has asked for more money to create more of these ground-transportation security teams next year. Well, I don’t like political decisions that seem bad when viewed through the lens of my own personal politics. But I get particularly annoyed at political decisions that seem bad when viewed through the lens of common sense, and this is one of them. It’s particularly easy in this case to determine if the annoyance (and possible 4th Amendment violation) is worth the increased security, because we’re gaining very little in increased security. After all,

1. Why should we think that someone who wanted to harm a train or bus would ever bother getting on it? They are not like airplanes, which are basically safe from outside threats once they leave the station/airport. No, instead they travel, on the ground, through thousands of miles of sparsely populated country. If we want to improve security, we would do better to have people out patrolling those routes, not going through the bags of passengers. But then,

2. Why should we think that a terrorist would want to attack a train or bus in the first place? Remember, even on 9/11, terrorists took over airplanes to use them as weapons against bigger targets – the planes themselves were not the end. Planes just don’t carry that many people, and neither do trains or buses. (And it would be a lot harder to use a train or bus as a weapon.) I had thought that the attempted bombing of Times Square would have taught us that our obsession over transportation security is misplaced. We can only devote so many resources to security, and it would make good sense to devote them elsewhere.

I could write more – about how even in airports, where the TSA might do some good, they don’t seem to be particularly competent and many of their rules make no sense – but I’m sure you’ve read those articles.

OK. In that case, what is our government thinking? I’m not sure. I can think of three possibilities, none of them very comforting.

1. A while ago I read an article – which I wish I could find – about “the soft tyranny of do-somethingism”. The idea is that our government feels the need to somehow respond, to do something, in response to any large threat or problem the country faces, even if that something does nothing to solve the problem or even makes it worse. In this case, our government knows well that security screenings for ground transportation are essentially worthless but at least, they can tell us, they are doing something for our safety. I think this is probably the most likely explanation.

2. Of course, there is always the incompetence explanation – maybe our government really does think that sniffing Grandma’s luggage before she boards the Greyhound is going to prevent the next attack. I rather hope this isn’t the case, but who knows.

3. Since the executive branch is controlled by the Democratic Party, a less-kind possibility is that, since government employees are some of the Democratic Party’s most reliable voters, this is simply another excuse to increase their number. (In fact, the union that represents TSA workers sends 95% of its political contributions to Democrats.)

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