As the irritable security guards waved me through the metal detectors with increasing urgency, I couldn’t help but think, “Well, this is odd.”
It was Sunday morning in Las Vegas, and despite my careful plan to arrive at the airport well before 7am, in the naive hope of avoiding crowds, the place was packed. Tourists and unsuccessful gamblers, their funds exhausted, flooded through the lines in a frantic charge to check bags and make it to their gates on time. So busy was it, in fact, that despite my early arrival, I was worried that the security line would take so long to navigate that catching my own flight would be a near thing.
Like so many travelers, I have long become used to the arduous ordeal of TSA guidelines, so much so that I have memorized the motions like some sort of perversely choreographed dance. Shoes off, liquids out of the bag, laptop in a bin by itself, jacket off, everything out of my pockets, hands above my head in a posture of surrender as I allow the uniformed agents an intimate peek through the full-body scanners. I can typically accomplish all of this in a matter of seconds, but others less familiar with the ritual routinely gum up the works, so that it is not uncommon to wait half an hour or more to gain admittance.
On this particular day, however, things were different. The same crowds that worried me had apparently convinced the security team that safety, the same safety they have been using to justify ever more intrusive screening procedures for the last decade and a half, was no longer a priority.
A guard announced that today, we all qualified as “TSA Pre-Check” passengers and that there was no need to take off our shoes or jackets, to remove laptops from our luggage, or to display common liquids like shampoo and toothpaste in little ziplock bags. All that was dispensed with at the wave of a hand. Not even the full-body scanners were used, and instead we all stepped through simple metal detectors the way we used to. It was actually really nice, but something about it left me feeling uneasy and unsatisfied.
It was not that I felt unsafe; no part of me has ever believed that shoe removal would be the difference between safety and danger. Instead, it was the unspoken admission by the TSA that all the hoops they have made us jump through for so many years are utterly inconsequential and can be eliminated on account of a busy morning.
Of course, deep down we all knew this already. The TSA is not about keeping us safe, nor is it about apprehending would-be terrorists. The TSA serves one purpose and one purpose only: To create the illusion of safety, the perception that someone is in charge and taking care of things, even if any sensible person can see that it’s all a charade.
Optics has always been one of the principle functions of government — not to solve problems, but to appear to be solving them, in order to secure re-election or high approval numbers. The politician who says, with perfect honesty, “There’s nothing we can do” will quickly fall before his opponent who promises easy answers. And it’s largely our fault, for being willing to believe Utopian visions and punishing uncomfortable frankness with our votes. The need to feel taken care of is overpowering for many people, and it remains the greatest obstacle to limiting government power and securing individual liberty.
In the city that boasts astonishing performances of genuine illusion from the likes of David Copperfield and Penn & Teller, however, it all seems like that much more of a hollow sham. At least in the case of the TSA, we ought no longer to allow ourselves to be duped. These people are not helping us; they are merely violating our privacy and dignity in an act of political theater, and as theater goes, it’s about the most unpleasant and dishonest performance we’re ever likely to see.
Logan Albright is a researcher for Conservative Review and director of research for Free the People. You can follow him on Twitter @loganalbright73.