Don’t Blame Your TSA Agent

This afternoon as I went through the security procedure at SEATAC, it was the usual mix of frustration and confusion about a system that seems designed to simultaneously, complete with all the accoutrement of theater, give us the illusion of safety and the absolutely certainty of frustration.

The experience was amplified by the experience of being right behind a man who quite clearly is one of the apparently 33% of Americans who believe that Donald Trump should be President. He was loudly and audibly angry that a family traveling to Indonesia was able to skirt ahead of our line because an apologetic airline official had forgotten to secure a wheelchair for the grandmother traveling with the group. He angrily berated a kid who was pointing us into one of two available lines, screaming at him to “Do his damn job,” before ignoring his instructions and ending up in the line that was marginally slower.

All this for an entire security screening that lasted twenty minutes at the most. I don’t open the trip with a description of this man as some sort of recognition of my own patience, as I had a somewhat angry encounter with a surly, handsy TSA agent right after I returned from Europe last year. We all let the system get the worst of us from time to time.

While this entire process was playing out, though, we were walking next to a line from a company called Clear, who have just opened in Seattle. For a fee, they promise to speed people through the lines with a biometric scan. During the time we were in line, only a few people used the Clear system, which was as fast as promised. What the Clear representatives probably didn’t do, though, was improve the mood of those of us in the commoner line, or even those in the TSA PreCheck line, as people in both groups were not in the right frame of mind for a commercial pitch for a service that only reminded us how slowly our line seemed to be moving.

All of this comes together in a sense. The experience of dual track lines, one public and one corporate, at airports is designed to create the myth that my Trump-loving friend was no doubt thinking: that the government is just inherently inefficient and slow, while the private sector ALWAYS does the job better and more efficiently. Those criticisms conveniently ignore that it was largely private security in place before 9/11 and that a healthy percentage of the inefficiency of the TSA today is simply that the agency isn’t given the resources it needs to be more efficient.

It would be convenient to imagine that markets solve all things, and are always more efficient and more effective. The truth, however, is probably much more complex, and if we want our security lines to move as rapidly as the ones operated by private enterprise, we need to invest in the system that serves us and keeps us safe.

I’m not saying that the occasional TSA agent probably doesn’t deserve to get the occasional sass or that the system doesn’t need to improve, but it’s probably worth remembering once in awhile (for all of us) that the person working the gate isn’t the person who made staffing decisions, nor is she the members of Congress who won’t invest adequately in the system, despite promising to keep us all safe.

Off to Iceland!

Photo by Kitt Hodsden [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons