Sunday, December 20, 2009

How Some TSA Workers Undermine Our Security

I am at LaGuardia Airport right now. During the part of security check where hand baggage is screened, the gentleman ahead of me was waiting for his luggage which had been screened, but was still in the part of the conveyer belt that was covered. The woman doing the screening was sitting at her computer occasionally yelling out for someone to screen a suitcase. She could have, but refused to pass the already screened bag of the passenger ahead of me. When the passenger ahead of me requested for his bag, she first deliberately ignored him, and then yelled at him to wait.

Incidents such as these, where people in charge of protecting our security go around yelling at passengers for no particular reason are a common occurrence, not only at LaGuardia, but all over the world. Maybe they like to display power, are inherent bullies, and psychological nut-cases, but whatever the reason, they jeopardize our security. They create an actively hostile environment in public spaces where people are angry and helpless—the passenger in front of me was angry because he was not being given his luggage and because had he said anything, he knew he would be detained in this paranoid security environment. In doing so, they damage the social fabric that is so helpful in catching terrorists and preventing terrorist attacks.

Individuals do a lot of things for reasons that are difficult to rationalize but that make society safer. People frequently report crimes that occur when they are passing by, answer calls for information by calling tip-lines, and report suspicious activity. We saw during the 9/11 attacks that passengers overtook an airplane and prevented it from crashing into its intended target. With this in mind, it should be an aim of policy makers to protect and enhance an environment where ordinary people contribute to enhancing security. Instead we have a brigade of yelling TSA officers at every airport.

At the security line, if the woman had only been sensible enough to pass on the bag to the gentleman ahead of me, she would have in no way compromised the security of the aircraft and would have prevented hostility (it would have been closer to Pareto optimal a situation). She might even have won praise for her department as being a traveler friendly officer. Instead she got so worked up about this supposedly suspicious bag that she spent a good five minutes yelling rather randomly.

That suspicious bag belonged to an old couple who were in their late 70s. Another officer had directed them ahead of the line, and their suitcase remained on the table where everyone had lined up their luggage. Since it wasn’t automated, they should have stayed with their luggage to push it into that box for the screening woman. Or perhaps the other officer shouldn’t have pushed them ahead into the line past their baggage.  But the fact remains—polite and firm action on part of that TSA worker would have enhanced our security. The yelling episode did the exact opposite. TSA should make note: it can do a lot better of a job by training its officers to be polite and firm. Happy customers of the TSA are more likely to help security and be on the lookout for suspicious activity than those that were just treated like crap.