The Price of Aviation Security

November 22, 2010 Topic: Public OpinionTerrorism Region: United States Blog Brand: Paul Pillar

The Price of Aviation Security

So you still want fool-proof security from terrorists on airplanes?

What should we make of the brouhaha over the Transportation Security Administration irradiating air passengers and feeling their private parts? Is it a case of uncommonly overzealous bureaucrats? Unfortunate timing in implementing such stepped-up measures, on the eve of the busiest travel time of the year? Another step in what some regard as ever greater government intrusion into citizens' personal affairs?


It is instead a conspicuous illustration of the inherent, unavoidable trade-offs between security and other important values and objectives. In counterterrorism, the trade-offs involve not only financial and other economic costs but also compromises of personal liberty and privacy. Many public policies involve such trade-offs, especially regarding financial costs but perhaps other side-effects as well. In each case, the nation needs to decide how much of a public good it wants to buy, given those costs. As a representative democracy, the United States ought to have an orderly, democratically accountable way of making those decisions.

Obviously we have not had an orderly procedure in the case of the stepped-up aviation security measures. One contributing reason is that, although the trade-offs clearly exist, it is difficult to define them in sufficiently exact terms to get a clear sense of how much security we are buying for how much cost. We cannot say with confidence that patting down passengers' genitals reduces by X percent the chance of a bomb getting on board an airliner. A more fundamental reason is that we, the public, prefer not to face squarely the trade-offs and choices at all but instead to treat the avoidance of terrorist attacks as an absolute goal. We don't speak in terms of how much security to buy at what cost but instead in terms of what is or is not necessary to achieve that goal. When an attack occurs we regard it as an avoidable failure of government, not as something that sometimes happens when, in return for not surrendering wholesale our privacy and liberties, we accept a degree of risk. Few of the complaints currently being directed against TSA are phrased as, “I prefer not to put up with that much invasion of my privacy, even if it does leave some increased risk of a terrorist attack succeeding.” Instead, the complaints are more like, “Is all this intrusion really necessary to prevent terrorist attacks on aviation?”

No other threat to life and limb gets treated this way. Highway accidents kill some 40,000 people each year in the United States—far beyond the death toll from terrorism. Many measures could be taken that would greatly reduce that figure—for example, as George Will points out, banning left turns (there are many others, such as lowering and rigorously enforcing speed limits). But we don't take such measures because avoiding traffic fatalities is not treated as an absolute goal, as avoiding terrorist incidents is. One doesn't hear talk about what is necessary to eliminate traffic fatalities. We have collectively, tacitly decided that elimination is not worth the added inconvenience (or curtailment of our liberty, if you want to look at it that way) of something like not being able to turn left.

Some of my fellow counterterrorist intelligentsia have offered, in response to the latest dust-up, suggestions for different ways TSA could go about its business of keeping terrorists and their weapons off airplanes. My colleagues can provide informed advice on which techniques might offer more bang for the buck in the sense of effectively finding the bad guys and their weapons at minimal cost to personal privacy. But it should not be up to them to determine where the balance should be struck—to decide how much security the nation should buy at how much cost.

Nor should it be up to a government agency such as TSA. TSA should implement a decision like that, not make the decision itself. In the absence of being handed such a decision by the political authorities, one could say that TSA is doing the next best thing by in effect taking a sort of public poll on the matter by ratcheting up security measures until the public squawks enough that the ratcheting must stop.

That is a highly imperfect way of making the collective decision about how much security to buy, and not just because of the overall awkwardness and rancor involved or even the inaccuracy in gauging public opinion. (A more scientific poll suggests that most Americans accept use of the body scanning machines but not the enhanced pat-downs.)  It is imperfect also because TSA's interests and motivations are not to be equated with those of the citizenry as a whole. TSA's biggest interest is not in finding the public's preferences about where to strike the balance. Its biggest interest is in avoiding a terrorist attack, and specifically an attack that would result in the agency being castigated as having failed. When an attack occurs, few will come to TSA's defense by pointing out that it was operating in accordance with public preferences about what screening measures the public would or would not tolerate. Instead, it will be the target of sharp criticism to the effect that it should have done a better job of determining what was necessary to stop the attack. Almost no one came to the defense of government agencies after the near-miss attempted bombing of an airliner last December—in which there was much criticism about the bomber's name not getting on to certain watch lists—by pointing out that there earlier had been much criticism about those lists being too inclusive.

So here's the best way to make sense of what TSA is doing, and of how and why the public is reacting the way it is. The brouhaha reflects our insistence on achieving absolute security against terrorist attacks, our quickness in spewing recriminations when absolute security is not achieved, and our refusal to face up to the difficult decisions of how much security to seek and at what cost.