TSA Admits Liquid Ban Is Security Theater

The TSA is allowing people to bring larger bottles of hand sanitizer with them on airplanes:

Passengers will now be allowed to travel with containers of liquid hand sanitizer up to 12 ounces. However, the agency cautioned that the shift could mean slightly longer waits at checkpoint because the containers may have to be screened separately when going through security.

Won’t airplanes blow up as a result? Of course not.

Would they have blown up last week were the restrictions lifted back then? Of course not.

It’s always been security theater.

Interesting context:

The TSA can declare this rule change because the limit was always arbitrary, just one of the countless rituals of security theater to which air passengers are subjected every day. Flights are no more dangerous today, with the hand sanitizer, than yesterday, and if the TSA allowed you to bring 12 ounces of shampoo on a flight tomorrow, flights would be no more dangerous then. The limit was bullshit. The ease with which the TSA can toss it aside makes that clear.

All over America, the coronavirus is revealing, or at least reminding us, just how much of contemporary American life is bullshit, with power structures built on punishment and fear as opposed to our best interest. Whenever the government or a corporation benevolently withdraws some punitive threat because of the coronavirus, it’s a signal that there was never any good reason for that threat to exist in the first place.

Posted on March 16, 2020 at 9:31 AM34 Comments


Joe March 16, 2020 10:20 AM

I agree that the TSA is largely security theater, but their change in policy regarding liquids doesn’t prove it, or even support this conclusion.

The TSA just decided that the risks of infection and continuing the pandemic are larger than the risk of someone bringing explosive liquids on board. Which is perfectly reasonable. There is no logical path to “therefore liquids carry no risk”.

Count0 March 16, 2020 10:21 AM

Now the real question is how can we make this permanent and roll back the stupid liquid restrictions forever?

Etienne March 16, 2020 10:49 AM

You have to be willing to take a body count, otherwise the terrorists win. So far the TSA has been awarding terrorists accomplishment trophies while turning airports into concrete gulags.

Matt March 16, 2020 11:19 AM

@Ren I’m no fan of data caps either, but ISPs can’t deliver infinite traffic. At any given time they have a finite number of routers that each have a finite max capacity, which has an implicit mathematical cap on how much bandwidth they can deliver. Data caps being artificially low is the problem, not that any data cap exists at all.

Curious March 16, 2020 11:26 AM

I thought it was interesting what New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said on a press conference today. He points out a lack of rules for the nation in this pandemic, and so points out that you end up with “state shopping” where you can drive somewhere else (presumalby to buy stuff), because of how rules are different from state to state made by local authorities, and he also points out such being the last things they want (presumably having people moving around that way).

Snarki, child of Loki March 16, 2020 11:33 AM

“Now, if my wife could just get back her Vegas snow globe she was forced to throw away.”

That would allow the snow-globe wielding terrorists to win. The horror, the horror.

Clive Robinson March 16, 2020 11:58 AM

@ Etienne,

So far the TSA has been awarding terrorists accomplishment trophies while turning airports into concrete gulags.

A policy put badly in place by the TSA, that will like as not kill as many people as the terrorists did in 9/11 in the next couple or three weeks…

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has stated that crowds should not be happening by the force of law, to stop the spread of SARS-CoV-2. Further that testing should be ramped up and “containment” still sort as a goal to saving the maximum number of lives as well as minimising the impact on the world economy.

So the TSA has implemented incoming passenger screening, which is good. However they have done it in a totaly “ham fisted way” that shows they realy do not understand the problem in the slightest…

What they have is cramped up two to three hour ques/lines in the enclosed spaces that form your apptly named “concrete gulags”. That is the TSA have quite deliberately created an almost ideal way to get as many disparate people to infect each other then spread off into just about every place in the US –where there is no communiry testing currently– to carry on infecting people all over the US.

If you’ve not thought how many people that can infect, the current doubling case time in France is a little under “three days”.

So it’s easy to see from other information that in, closed in environments people can be infected upto 6meters (20ft) away by suspended droplets and with atleast a half hour time seperation from droplets suspended in the air…

So just one infective person could infect several hundred people whilst standing in the que/line waiting to be screened Then after three days those several hundred people will double the number infected for upto 14 or more days with viable virus surface transfer. Thats an upto the 2^7 (128) times multiplier of that several hundred in three weeks of which 8% of middle aged people will die…

So I realy do not think the TSA even have a tiny tiny clue as to what they are doing in anything other than a fixed and very out of date context, that was a bad idea a couple of decades ago.

How many of those that get the virus and die of it is unknown, but their deaths will be on the TSA’s hands.

metaschima March 16, 2020 1:08 PM

Totally agree with the article and comments, it’s all about money and politics. The TSA rules are total BS and do not in any way improve safety.

JMC March 16, 2020 1:46 PM

Didn’t the liquid ban already not apply to “medically necessary” liquids such as contact lens solution or nyquil? Of course, there’s no test of whether the liquid is actually what’s written on the container.

Peter March 16, 2020 2:49 PM

It’s pretty clearly theatre, yes, but it invites the question “does security theatre work?”. The post implies the answer is “no”, but at least for me, that’s not a priori obvious. It seems plausible that the pageantry has an emotional effect on both passengers (except all us very smart people :D) and would-be miscreants, which in the end does enhance security. I assume someone has studied or written about this – links?

Dr Wellington Yueh March 16, 2020 2:50 PM

@Matt re: caps

Caps are bullshit. The company rents me a pipe with a set speed, and I should get that speed. Your ‘infinite’ is a strawman. Of course it’s impossible to support infinite traffic! The company sells throughput, not storage space. They need to calculate how many rubes they rent 100mb/s connections to, and build out their infrastructure appropriately, rather than building their CEO a fourth beach house.

Alejandro March 16, 2020 3:07 PM

Great quote:

“All over America, the coronavirus is revealing, or at least reminding us, just how much of contemporary American life is bullshit, with power structures built on punishment and fear as opposed to our best interest.”

Nice when someone says it so well right out loud.

Craig McQueen March 16, 2020 5:35 PM

It’s more nuanced than that. I’m sure many of these things aren’t a black-and-white “is it deadly, or is it safe?” but a question of risk. As such, we don’t make decisions black-and-white objectively, but have to weigh up estimates of risk, which may be small. Allowing liquids presents some level of terrorist risk, even if small. Banning liquids presents a different risk in relation to coronavirus.

It’s not obvious what is the right balance between various risks. How does one make a judgement between lockdowns to protect elderly and those with some medical conditions but harm the economy, versus freedom of movement that allows the economy to keep moving at the cost of some lives of elderly or some with medical conditions? It’s a very hard judgement to make, that would be influenced by pragmatic concerns and also one’s philosophy about the meaning of life.

Harry March 16, 2020 6:53 PM

The irony is that the liquid that TSA is letting take more of, is actually flammable. Unlike shampoo or snow globes.

David Leppik March 16, 2020 7:02 PM


“Now, if my wife could just get back her Vegas snow globe she was forced to throw away.”

What’s purchased in Vegas stays in Vegas!

Steve March 16, 2020 7:06 PM

Interesting that nobody is asking how much of the continuing lockdown of the US and the world is “virus theater,” no?

There’s nothing more permanent than a “temporary” measure.

Clive Robinson March 16, 2020 7:28 PM

@ Peter,

It’s pretty clearly theatre, yes, but it invites the question “does security theatre work?”

Your question is effectively uslessly broad as it invites a myriad of answers. You need to qualify what you are asking and make it quite selective.

So if you ask “does security theatre work as a “job creation scheme?” The answer is obviously yes.

If however you ask “does security theatre work as an effective way to find bombs and guns in carry on?” The answer according to the TSA’s own in house testing is very obviously no.

Likewise if you ask “does security theatre work as a way for perverts to get their jollies?” the answer according to oversight is a qualified yes.

Further if you ask “does security theatre work as an enabler to bagage thieves?” the answer is a very definate yes.

And so on…

Sed Contra March 16, 2020 8:11 PM

Extreme Lockdown Theatre does seem to be a thing just like the liquids in bottles. No analysis of what is the proportionate response. One negative effect it has is to wither social contacts, and genuine “grassroots” where people meet, talk, form ideas, and possibly derive actions. And it’s a bit troubling that the forbidding and disruption of normal activities is just what political revolutionaries try to impose.

parabarbarian March 17, 2020 10:19 AM

“All over America, the coronavirus is revealing, or at least reminding us, just how much of contemporary American life is bullshit, with power structures built on punishment and fear as opposed to our best interest.”

All power structures are built on punishment and fear. Every carrot a government hands out it takes from someone else using a stick. Some States are just starting to see just how bad that can get.

KeithB March 17, 2020 4:37 PM

Yes there is a test as to what is in the bottle. Almost every time I go through they have me squeeze a bit on a test strip looking for nitrates.

The last time I got a new kid who wanted me to throw it away since it was more than 3.5 oz. I explained the rules to him, he asked someone else, and proceeded to test my bottles.

I was at one airport, where they had some sort of nmr or something, they put the bottle in a little machine without opening the bottle and declared it safe. Of course, it could have been a little machine that goes bing. 8^)

The worst I saw was when they tested a woman’s breast milk. Every. Single. Pouch. The woman was devastated.

TexasDex March 18, 2020 8:07 AM

Two things stand out in this announcement:

  • The hand sanitizer gets extra screening
  • They expect this to cause delays

They’ve always been willing to make exceptions for medical stuff, but they still did extra screening. So they’re confident about allowing any quantity of liquids with the requisite extra checks, they just weren’t willing to do those checks on non-medical liquids because they didn’t have the capacity.

J D Williams March 18, 2020 10:55 AM

The TSA is like any other gubmint agency…full of sh*t and designed to abridge our rights.

hang_on March 18, 2020 3:29 PM

TSA is a job creation program. Always has been.

Which aspects of globalism do you loathe the most?

1) tightly-coupled economies, so that when one fails, they all fail

2) multiculturalism, which means low social capital, unrest, fractious politics…

3) the vast and unnecessary pollution created by millions of people jetting needlessly all over the world

4) canned tomatoes that were grown in the US, shipped to Portugal to be processed, then shipped back to the US for retail. Coz that’s efficient, right?

5) roll your own

Aj March 18, 2020 4:36 PM

TSA can let you take your liquids greater than 3.4oz, but then they will test everything and that will cause extremely longer wait times as stated in the article…then people will complain. Just like when TSA had scanners that provided a clear image of passengers scanned, people complained. So now they use less accurate scanners, and people still complain because they have to get a pat down that takes a few seconds…SMH

Truthsayer March 18, 2020 5:51 PM

Let the travel consumer decide. Airlines can offer different levels of security according to demand.

Mencken put it well: governments thrive on its subjects’ fear.

It is better to trust in God, than to put your trust in man.

mishehu March 19, 2020 1:23 AM


They didn’t make the stupid scanners any less accurate. You assume they were useful to begin with. What they did do was replace the image the operator saw with something much more generic. But the rapey-scanners are still just as useless as they have always been. How many terries have they gotten froggy on? None that I’ve ever heard of.

Petre Peter March 19, 2020 7:20 AM

‘I can make an incendiary with stuff I buy from the stores near the gates.’ Teach passengers to fight back and lock the pilot in a cabin. The rest is security theater and wasted money and time

Brutus Antifederlest March 19, 2020 9:03 AM

As long as people continue to fly, the airlines will not fight the TSA.

When we decide we can do with out the airlines for a year or so we will see the TSA go back to flipping burgers.

If you are in a no win hijacking situation you can at least thwart the mission by getting every body to run to the back of the plane. Then the CG would be too far back and down she comes.
If you are high enough you could kill the hijackers in the confusion, get back to your seats and the pilot would be able to recover.



Mark April 16, 2020 12:29 PM

When confidence in the business/industry takes a hit (security incident, covid, business continuity event, anything), companies will want to do something and also BE SEEN as doing something. Unfortunately these efforts are not always aligned, especially if done in haste.

A company can do a lot of effective behind-the-scenes work for the safety of their customers, which the customer does not see and consequently not appreciate. Then the same company might do something that is more visible (to the masses) but less effective – more of a ‘marketing’ effort than anything else, or theatre as Bruce put it.

These 2 instances – once when TSA put the limit on liquids, and then when they removed the limit on sanitizers – easily fall into this ‘marketing’ effort.

Chip May 28, 2020 2:23 PM

Sometimes I wonder if the terrorists just mess with the TSA by creating chatter about ridiculous plots. Was the whole liquid restriction begun because a couple of jihadists decided to start a rumor about making explosives from water and anti-water?

Just wait for the announcement that eyeglasses are being banned because of “intelligence” about high-powered lasers being embedded in them.

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