How airport security is killing us

This week marks the beginning of the busiest travel time of the year. For millions of North Americans, the misery of holiday travel is made considerably worse by a government agency ostensibly designed to make our journeys more secure. Created in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Transportation Security Administration has largely outlived its usefulness, as the threat of a terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland continues to recede. These days, the TSA’s major role appears to be to make plane trips more unpleasant. And by doing so, it’s encouraging people to take the considerably more dangerous option of traveling by road.

The attention paid to terrorism in the U.S. is considerably out of proportion to the relative threat it presents. That’s especially true when it comes to Islamic-extremist terror. Of the 150,000 murders in the U.S. between 9/11 and the end of 2010, Islamic extremism accounted for fewer than three dozen. Since 2000, the chance that a resident of the U.S. would die in a terrorist attack was one in 3.5 million, according to John Mueller and Mark Stewart of Ohio State and the University of Newcastle, respectively. In fact, extremist Islamic terrorism resulted in just 200 to 400 deaths worldwide outside the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq—the same number, Mueller noted in a 2011 report (PDF), as die in bathtubs in the U.S. alone each year.

Yet the TSA still commands a budget of nearly $8 billion—which is why the agency is left with too many officers and not enough to do. The TSA’s “Top Good Catches of 2011,” reported on its blog, did include 1,200 firearms and—their top find—a single batch of C4 explosives (though those were discovered only on the return flight). A longer list of TSA’s confiscations would include a G.I. Joe action doll’s 4-inch plastic rifle (“it’s a replica”) and a light saber. And needless to say, the TSA didn’t spot a single terrorist trying to board an airline in the U.S., notes Bruce Schneier.

According to one estimate of direct and indirect costs borne by the U.S. as a result of 9/11, the New York Times suggested the attacks themselves caused $55 billion in “toll and physical damage,” while the economic impact was $123 billion. But costs related to increased homeland security and counterterrorism spending, as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, totaled $3,105 billion. Mueller and Stewart estimate that government spending on homeland security over the 2002-11 period accounted for around $580 billion of that total.

The researchers quote Rand Corp. President James Thomson, who noted most of that expenditure was implemented “with little or no evaluation.” In 2010, the National Academy of Science reported the lack of “any Department of Homeland Security risk analysis capabilities and methods that are yet adequate for supporting [department] decision making.” In short, DHS (and the TSA in particular) is firing huge bundles of large denomination bills completely blindly.

There is lethal collateral damage associated with all this spending on airline security—namely, the inconvenience of air travel is pushing more people onto the roads. Compare the dangers of air travel to those of driving. To make flying as dangerous as using a car, a four-plane disaster on the scale of 9/11 would have to occur every month, according to analysis published in the American Scientist. Researchers at Cornell University suggest that people switching from air to road transportation in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks led to an increase of 242 driving fatalities per month—which means that a lot more people died on the roads as an indirect result of 9/11 than died from being on the planes that terrible day. They also suggest that enhanced domestic baggage screening alone reduced passenger volume by about 5 percent in the five years after 9/11, and the substitution of driving for flying by those seeking to avoid security hassles over that period resulted in more than 100 road fatalities.

That’s not to say TSA employees bear responsibility for making the roads more dangerous—they’re just following incentives that reward slavish attention to overbearing and ambiguous rules over common sense. And don’t blame the officials of Homeland Security, either. They’re merely avoiding the far greater backlash associated with doing nothing than with doing something—even if nothing is probably the right course in a lot of cases. Instead, the blame lies somewhere among the politicians, the media, and the electorate, who will happily skewer officials over a single fatal plane incident while ignoring car crashes, gun homicides, and even bathtub accidents, which kill far more Americans than terrorism does.

If Americans really care about saving lives this Thanksgiving travel season, for goodness’ sake, don’t beef up airport security any further. Slashing the TSA will ensure that more people live to spend future holidays with loved ones.

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