It Ought to Be Curtains for the TSA
The agency is designed to do nothing except gawk, and now we all know it.



The right balance between security and liberty is a knotty thing to divine. But Americans are not being asked to determine such a thing — indeed, they are not even being asked to choose between Henry’s liberty or death. They are instead being asked to decide between liberty and dramaturgy. The choice should be clear.

In Politico magazine this week, a former TSA employee named Jason Harrington revealed that the staff are in on the game. “We knew the full-body scanners didn’t work before they were even installed,” Harrington recalled. And yet he and his team were “ordered to tell the public that the machines were 100 percent effective, security-wise, in the event that any citizens caught wind of rumors to the contrary.” The TSA, in other words, has adopted the logic by which the employees at Disneyland are bound: All children who start to look behind the rebar cages and metal lath that make Frontierland’s canyons appear to be real must quickly be given an ice cream and directed toward the parade. Somewhere, Grigory Potemkin is chuckling.

How bad is it? Bad enough that the much-hated full-body scanners — each of which plucked $150,000 out of taxpayers’ pockets — are “unable to distinguish plastic explosives from body fat,” while “guns are practically invisible if . . . turned sideways in a pocket.” The system, Harrington reveals, is capable of “detecting just about everything” . . . “besides cleverly hidden explosives and guns,” which helps to explain why seven out of ten weapons get past screeners and why, per the admission of one of its early legislative champions, the TSA has never caught a single would-be bomber.

A general rule of thumb is that before a piece of technology has been proven to have any real value, it will be employed to distribute smut. So, too, here: “Many of the images we gawked at were of overweight people, their every fold and dimple on full awful display. Piercings of every kind were visible. Women who’d had mastectomies were easy to discern — their chests showed up on our screens as dull, pixelated regions.” Worried about rogue employees taking advantage of your privacy? How about thousands of such people making racial jokes about your junk? Harrington remembers that, in the rooms where the full-body scans are read,

duty quickly devolved into an unofficial break. It was the one place in the airport free of surveillance cameras, since the TSA had assured the public that no nude images of passengers would be stored on any recording device, closed circuit cameras included.

“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (Who will watch the watchers?), the Roman poet Juvenal asked. Half-responding in The Republic, Socrates argued that one needed only to “devise . . . just one noble lie which may deceive the rulers, if that be possible, and at any rate the rest of the city.”

In constitutional republics, noble lies are problematic at the best of times. But when the rulers, the guards, and the rest of the city all know that the lie is a lie, the endeavor becomes mere harlequinade — and, at 8 billion dollars a year, improvident, too. A better question, perhaps, is this: “Who will fire the guards”?

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.