It has been the worst-kept secret of the last decade: a truth that dared speak its name only when muttered quietly, a ruse that has been justified and rejustified on grounds that would never traditionally pass muster; and a target for Americans across the political board — for the recalcitrant, for the complaisant, and for those somewhere in between.
It, of course, is the TSA — that vain, extravagant, and unhappily anxious piece of post-9/11 performance art that has been extended far beyond Broadway and out onto a permanent tour of the provinces, in whose airports a cast of little Napoleons engage gravely in what has become nothing less than an impudent con.
The federal government has spent more than $60 billion on the TSA since 2002, a sum that has helped the outfit mushroom into the employer of some 65,000 people — more than the combined forces of the Departments of State, Labor, Energy, Education, and Housing and Urban Development. A congressional report from 2012 aptly labeled the congregation “an enormous, inflexible and distracted bureaucracy,” mostly interested in “consolidating power,” and a few months later, as if to grimly prove the point, the agency secured for itself a union contract via the American Federation of Government Employees. The first order of business naturally was to establish
that annual leave be calculated not on anything as prosaic as job performance but instead on good old-fashioned seniority, the patron saint of inefficiency and inertia.
One can rather understand why the TSA’s bumptious stiffs were so keen to break the link between the security of their positions and the security of the public: They are doing nothing, and they know it. Here, incompetence is a feature not a bug — the foreordained product of a vast and intricate confidence-laundering operation that would have made the Wizard of Oz blush. Vanity Fair’s Charles C. Mann explained candidly in 2011 that the TSA’s actions are explicitly set up to “accomplish nothing,” and “designed” instead “to make the government look like it is on the job.”
Obstinate critics of the state will presumably agree that the TSA has, at least, achieved that. Casual rudeness? Check. Terminal inefficiency? Check. Pococurante abuse, with precious little to show for it? Check, check. The TSA is the platonic ideal of a government department! It belongs in the Smithsonian.
In a free country such as America, the scale of the TSA’s inadequacy should by now have been cause for a revolt. Time after time, contrarians and the skeptics have set out to puncture the façade — and they have succeeded. Among the attempts, Adam Savage, the scofflaw co-host of Discovery’s Mythbusters, managed to get a pair of twelve-inch razor blades through the system and onto a plane; undercover agents from DHS’s investigative “Red Team” snuck a dummy IED past agents, despite being subjected to magnometer scans and pat-downs; and an executive for the New Orleans Hornets recently took a loaded handgun in his carry-on luggage without so much as a raised eyebrow.