I don’t know what’s happening today but suddenly there are multiple stories about airport security “breaches” that aren’t and, more worrying, massive over-reactions on the part of the authorities.

In the first story, a lovesick schmuck walked in the exit path and ducked under a rope at Newark Int’l Airport in order to give his significant other a hug before she got on her plane. The guard who should have prevented this was not at his post. TSA isn’t saying why. They are, however, trying to find the man who gave the hug and threatening criminal charges.

Admittedly, the breach resulted in a huge disruption not only of airtraffic at Newark but also cascading throughout the world as connecting flights were delayed. This was an expensive mistake. But it’s not the fault of the man who jumped the rope. The disruption is directly attirbutable to the pointless security theater practiced by the TSA. These threats to press charges are a transparent attempt to deflect attention from the fact that their security protocols are expensive, intrusive and, worst, inherently ineffective. It might be different if we were actually getting some increased security in exchange for our sacrificed civil liberties but this is just pointless.

The second story is an internal test gone wrong. Slovakian security experts were testing the effectiveness of the bomb-sniffing dogs. To make the test as realistic as possible, they snuck some high explosive into a passenger’s bags after check-in but before the bags went onto the plane. There was no detonator or other means to set it off, just the raw material. The dog successfully found the explosive but the handler apparently got distracted and forget to take it out before the bags were loaded. The mistake wasn’t found until the plane was in the air toward Ireland. They radioed the pilot, though, who decided that there was no risk (no detonator, remember?). They also notified the folks at Dublin Airport.

That didn’t stop the Irish security from arresting the innocent man whose bags were used in the test. He was later released (we hope with some kind of apology). The Irish government has focused not on their overreaction but on the “riskiness” of the test, calling it “unprecedented”. Realistic tests are not only accepted but are best practice. Do you really want to train your dog using only fake materials? How will you know whether she’s actually reacting to the right triggers? An explosive-sniffing dog that only reacts to Play-Doh (which looks and feels like C4 and might even smell like it to a human) won’t do any of us much good. Despite the Irish government’s spokesperson’s claims, tests with real materials are normal. Again, deflecting.

The third story is a domestic traveler who wanted to bring home some honey. Knowing that there are new restrictions, he called TSA who confirmed that honey, like other foodstuffs, can be checked in your baggage (though it may not currently be taken as carry-on). TSA claims that the plastic bottles of honey tested positive for TNT and TATP and that two of their screeners had to be “rushed to the hospital” after opening the bottles. Subsequent tests showed no explosives – the two screeners are now being described as “just nervous”. That didn’t stop TSA from yanking the victim off the plane and disrupting travel for hours. All of it pointless, though at least this time TSA is taking at least a little bit of ownership for their mistake.

NPR ran a report a few days ago talking about the inherent difficulties of looking for bombs instead of looking for terrorists. On any given flight, there are only about a hundred suspects. There are, however, literally tens of thousands of hiding locations for bombs. And new security protocols always address the last threat, never the next threat. Terrorists adapt. Their tactics are not static. Make us take off our shoes – the explosives go in the coffee cup. Ban all liquids – try the underwear.

Next up, carry the explosives in a body cavity. Actually, that’s not even novel – it’s already been used in an Al Qaeda’s assassination attempt against one of the Saudi princes. And all those fancy whole-body scanners can’t do a thing to stop it.

As a society, we keep hoping that by sacrificing “just this one more” bit of our personal dignity and liberty, we will finally be safe. That’s not and never will be true. The recent failures highlight not tactical failures in the implementation of our security but a wholesale failure in the underlying security strategy. It’s time to rewrite our approach from the ground up.

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