I was able to fly home for the holidays, and after not flying for some time (gas is almost always cheaper than plane fare) I had my first opportunity to experience the Transportation Security Administration’s “improvements” in airline security.  On my first flight I experienced my first full body scans, had my pockets felt up by a security officer when a metal button didn’t pass the scan, and saw a very attractive and visibly upset young woman being given an enhanced pat-down right in the middle of the hundreds of travelers in the terminal.  On my flight back to school, however, the security checkpoint seemed like nothing in contrast to the TSA screening process for baggage.

Upon arriving in Atlanta and getting off the plane, I headed to a small airline-specific baggage claim area.  As the bags came down the conveyor belt and the carousel started rotating, I was shocked when I saw this bag coming around the corner:

While the resolution on my flip-phone’s camera leaves something to be desired, the picture is fairly self-explanatory.  Tape was wrapped around the entire suitcase, and one side was pulled apart with a blanket and some clothes bulging out from the torn opening.  And when I got a closer look, I could see the pattern on the tape clearly: it was the TSA Seal,  alternated with the bolded word “INSPECTED.”

Security officials have the right to hand-search whatever luggage cannot be adequately deemed safe through other scanning methods.  I won’t debate that particular security point; it has a valid function.  However, should you have a non-standard lock on your baggage, the Department of Homeland Security has deemed it appropriate for TSA officials to cut the locks off if they are not one of the pre-approved locks developed to open with a TSA master key.  Either way, when its searched, you end up with a lovely note deposited on top of the bag’s contents informing you that the TSA had searched your belongings. I should know: I received one when my bag was searched. (I hope the TSA agents appreciated the coffeemaker I got for Christmas.)

In the case of the destroyed suitcase that I saw, the TSA didn’t just try to cut the lock.  In the act of searching the bag, either through negligence during their inspection or in trying to open the suitcase to begin with, they severely damaged the bag itself and likely rendered it unusable without paying for significant repairs.  And yet because of their government status, that “INSPECTED” tape doubles as armor against any legal charges of vandalism or destruction of property that someone might want to press.  Because they’re really only doing it “for our own safety.”

It’s been over eleven years since September 11, 2001 and the TSA was created to deal with the increased security concerns.  And yet in all that time, we have yet to come up with a better system of gauging security threats in airports apart from reactionary countermeasures.  Shoe bomber?  Take off your shoes.  Underpants bomb?  That belt could be shielding a wire; strip it off.   Wait, that bomb wasn’t made with wires?  Well, you’re just going to have stand in a machine that can see through your clothes.  You don’t like that machine?  Then they simply MUST run their hands all over your body.

Politely, of course.

Sure, the TSA has begun piloting its new behavioral screening program, which is similar to those interviewing techniques used by airline security officers in Israel.  But this program, unlike Israel’s more refined system, is still in development and is a brute force approach.  Consider what happened to this gentlemen, who upon refusing speak with a TSA Behavioral Detection Officer when he was flying out of Detroit was loudly identified as “another refusal” and was grabbed out of line, had his bag temporarily confiscated, and was swabbed for explosives residue.

That officer’s words are instructive.  I don’t think anyone disagrees with the idea that security measures are necessary, and no one is rationally proposing abandoning airline security altogether.  But in order to fly on private airlines in this country, individuals are compelled to submit to an increasingly onerous system.  If someone offers their “refusal,” to borrow the words of the TSA officer, he or she either cannot fly or is subjected to even more invasive searches as a penalty for noncompliance.

It’s highly disappointing that in America, the land of personal liberty, we have reached a point where the average person has to anticipate having some or all of their person and belongings needlessly searched by government officials when they choose to travel by air.  Terror threats make security measures a reasonable and necessary thing.  But rather than trying to implement smarter systems, the government has simply tried to expand the capabilities of those systems it already has in place.  In doing so, TSA screening has become even less efficient and even more onerous than it was before.

Building a smarter system will likely require the Department of Homeland Security to more closely partner with other countries such as Israel or the UK.  DHS officials will be able to borrow the best ideas from multiple sources, and restructure our system to be smarter, less invasive, and potentially even more effective.  It will not be an overnight fix – DHS has built a behemoth, to be sure – but rolling improvements could feasibly update security procedures in all American airports in a matter of just a couple of years.

Until then, however, we’re left with yet another year of invasive TSA screening at our airports.  And more unfortunate saps will end up with broken luggage like what I saw in Atlanta.

David Giffin | Emory University | @D_Giffin