Ascertaining whether the TSA is keeping us safe is a murky question, and difficult to answer in a straightforward way. One one hand, there is the fact that no serious terrorist incidents have occurred on U.S. planes since 9/11. However, it is hard to say whether this absence of incidents can be attributed to the actions of the Transportation Security Administration. How much the TSA has actually contributed to the safety of air travel is a controversial question.
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Criticism of the TSA
The root of criticism of the TSA is not that critics say that there is no danger but has to do with the effectiveness of security efforts. Some experts say that security precautions that include removing shoes, not traveling with more than 3 ounces of liquids and taking laptops out of bags amount to what is often called “security theater.” It is not clear whether any of these procedures do much to catch terrorists or if they simply tend to inconvenience passengers.
Slowing Travel, Endangering Lives
One thing most people can agree on is that air travel has become far less convenient. According to Vox, studies by three economists came to the surprising conclusion that more lives are lost because of the TSA. The study focused on the fact that due to the long wait times at airports as a result of security procedures, more people are opting to drive instead. An estimate of about 129 people per quarter die instead in automobile accidents who would presumably have flown safely. In the years since the studies were done, the TSA has put new procedures in place and say wait times are down.
As reported by ABC News, in 2017, undercover agents found TSA failed to detect security breaches more than half the time, and the frequency may have been as high as 80%. Two years earlier, agents had successfully smuggled weapons past TSA security 95% of the time. Defenders have argued that the TSA does not need to catch every person trying to smuggle weapons on a plane so much as their presence needs to discourage anyone from trying to do so in the first place, but critics point out that terrorists may be emboldened by these types of failures.
The Bottom Line
The TSA does discover guns and other dangerous weapons in hand luggage, and the agency also does a lot of security work behind the scenes. Furthermore, the agency does not confine its work to airport security. Railways, tunnels, bridges, and mass transit are among the areas that fall under the purview of the TSA. Security may forbid the agency from promoting some of its successes. Ultimately, short of having a potential terrorist come out and admit that they scrapped their plans because of the TSA, it is difficult to make predictions about what the last 18 years of airport security would have been like if airports had continued to use their pre-9/11 security procedures.
The role of the TSA in transportation security is difficult to accurately evaluate. Politics, as well as secrecy around procedures and results, means that information is often either biased or unavailable. For now, it appears that despite the inconveniences caused by screening procedures, airlines, airports and the government are unwilling to gamble with passenger safety. The best answer to the question about whether the TSA is keeping us safe might be “sometimes.”