In the wake of a lone wolf gunman storming a Terminal 3 security checkpoint at LAX last Friday and murdering a TSA screener, some are now calling for a cadre of TSA screeners to be armed at every airport. I sense this issue is dead on arrival, at least for now, but let us explore why this would be a very bad idea.
On Monday, the union representing 45,000 federal security agents called for the creation of a class of armed TSA officers with law enforcement training and the authority to arrest people.
“The sad truth is that our TSA officers are subject to daily verbal assaults and far too frequent physical attacks,” said Jeffrey David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees. “We feel a larger and more consistent armed presence in screening areas would be a positive step.”
The TSA’s laudable mission is to “protect the Nation’s transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce.” We have seen mission creep over the last decade through the creation of Behavior Detection Officers (BDOs) and Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) teams, but the TSA remains for the most part about making sure that passengers and cargo are properly screened before stepping onto an aircraft.
I still believe that job can be better accomplished without a behemoth federal agency to administer it, but let’s face it–the TSA is going nowhere. But the TSA is an entity whose identity will change as time goes on and we can either move in the direction of unobtrusiveness by removing full body scanners, uniforms and badges and requiring jackets and ties (as I advocate for) or the other direction: making the TSA more like a paramilitary law enforcement organization, which would be accomplished even if only a fraction of the agents were armed.
David Borer, the general counsel for the union that represents TSA agents, emphasized that the union was not suggesting giving weapons to all 45,000 TSA officers. The union wants to create a special class of armed officers — with law enforcement training — to guard screening areas. They would replace local police officers who are assigned to screening areas in some airports, Borer said.
Here’s three reasons why this is a bad idea–
1. It is too expensive. With the agency’s budget already bloated, funding this program will result in higher ticket prices. Are you willing to pay an extra $5 every time you fly for the illusion of safety? I am not. Look for passengers to bear the financial brunt if the TSA does move forward with arming its clerks. Training is expensive–corners cannot be cut when dealing with weapons that can be used to kill.
2. There are already airport police. It is not like the TSA is left to defend U.S. airports with no backup–LAX already has its own police force with officers that have been carefully trained in how to use a weapon. It is unfortunate that there was not an officer present when this happened, but I routinely see real law enforcement officers observing the security checkpoint at Terminal Seven at LAX. If anything, we just need to place airport police more strategically.
3. It is too dangerous. Let us not gloss over the fact that the outcome last Friday may not have been any different if an armed police officer was in the terminal. If a gunman starts shooting but is surrounded by dozens of travelers, as is always the case at a security checkpoint, a police officer or TSA agent cannot exactly fire at the assailant without jeopardizing the lives of all of the travelers nearby. Can you imagine the publicity if someone was killed by friendly fire?
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The elephant in the room is the fact that we likely never can prevent incidents like brainwashed 23-year-olds shooting up an airport (or school, or mall…). We must always be vigilant, but living in fear and spending in fear will not help at all.
America’s democratic experiment is an experiment in trust and it seems that far too often humanity lets us down. But when we respond to that depravity by trying to counter it rather than eliminate it, we will never make true progress. Shootings are a byproduct of debased culture that glorifies violence and perhaps our money would be spent on addressing that issue rather than arming ourselves further.
Is it too idealistic to wish for a society in which violence is routinely and unapologetically condemned? Not if we arm the TSA. Not if we embrace the status quo.