The Two Classes of Airport Contraband
Airport security found a jar of pasta sauce in my luggage last month. It was a 6-ounce jar, above the limit; the official confiscated it, because allowing it on the airplane with me would have been too dangerous. And to demonstrate how dangerous he really thought that jar was, he blithely tossed it in a nearby bin of similar liquid bottles and sent me on my way.
There are two classes of contraband at airport security checkpoints: the class that will get you in trouble if you try to bring it on an airplane, and the class that will cheerily be taken away from you if you try to bring it on an airplane. This difference is important: Making security screeners confiscate anything from that second class is a waste of time. All it does is harm innocents; it doesn’t stop terrorists at all.
Let me explain. If you’re caught at airport security with a bomb or a gun, the screeners aren’t just going to take it away from you. They’re going to call the police, and you’re going to be stuck for a few hours answering a lot of awkward questions. You may be arrested, and you’ll almost certainly miss your flight. At best, you’re going to have a very unpleasant day.
This is why articles about how screeners don’t catch every—or even a majority—of guns and bombs that go through the checkpoints don’t bother me. The screeners don’t have to be perfect; they just have to be good enough. No terrorist is going to base his plot on getting a gun through airport security if there’s a decent chance of getting caught, because the consequences of getting caught are too great.
Contrast that with a terrorist plot that requires a 12-ounce bottle of liquid. There’s no evidence that the London liquid bombers actually had a workable plot, but assume for the moment they did. If some copycat terrorists try to bring their liquid bomb through airport security and the screeners catch them—like they caught me with my bottle of pasta sauce—the terrorists can simply try again. They can try again and again. They can keep trying until they succeed. Because there are no consequences to trying and failing, the screeners have to be 100 percent effective. Even if they slip up one in a hundred times, the plot can succeed.
The same is true for knitting needles, pocketknives, scissors, corkscrews, cigarette lighters and whatever else the airport screeners are confiscating this week. If there’s no consequence to getting caught with it, then confiscating it only hurts innocent people. At best, it mildly annoys the terrorists.
To fix this, airport security has to make a choice. If something is dangerous, treat it as dangerous and treat anyone who tries to bring it on as potentially dangerous. If it’s not dangerous, then stop trying to keep it off airplanes. Trying to have it both ways just distracts the screeners from actually making us safer.
EDITED TO ADD (10/23): A similar article ran in The Guardian.