Before last Friday, Transportation Security Administration officers were little more than agents of inconvenience to the frustrated traveling public — brigades of blue-shirted guards demanding your belt and shoes, and then that shampoo bottle you left in your suitcase.
On Friday, however, a TSA officer fell in the line of duty for the first time, the victim of an allegedly disturbed man with an assault rifle who said he wanted to “instill fear in your traitorous minds.”
What the suspect accomplished, other than horrifying the nation by allegedly slaying that officer and wounding two others and a high school teacher, was to start a debate about making airport security checkpoints safer. But the tragedy should also encourage Americans to appreciate those who do the thankless work of running the airline security system Congress set up.
It’s early to draw big conclusions about the shooting at Los Angeles International Airport. But a raft of ideas already is floating around. One is to introduce nearly 50,000 more guns into the country’s airports by arming every TSA officer. Unless a massive amount of time and money goes into that effort, it could well add more danger than it subtracts. The president of the union representing TSA officers has called for giving them arrest powers. But it’s not clear how that would make anyone safer from deranged gunmen. The TSA could push to redesign security checkpoints or to post armed officers at specific locations near screening zones. These measures are worth thinking about, but they could also be costly relative to the security benefits.
The truth is that there will always be various risks at these checkpoints. The TSA officers’ job is to filter out the biggest dangers; in order to create a controlled airport environment on the other side, the checkpoints have to be exposed to the outside world and are filled with mobs of people. And they are conspicuous symbols of a security system that, though necessary to make terrorist attacks and hijackings more difficult, some Americans detest.
That is only one of the reasons why Americans should appreciate, not disrespect, TSA officers. Most officers will never have to face a hostile shooter. But all of them must deal with the mundane, everyday toil of enforcing all the rules on an often impatient public.
The last time the TSA was making big headlines, it was the butt of ridicule. “Don’t touch my junk,” an uncooperative passenger warned a TSA screener about to perform a pat-down inspection. A video of the encounter incited a brief flap about airport security routines that only seem to get more time-consuming and invasive, triggering frustration that too often is taken out on those at the bottom of the TSA apparatus. Union leaders had to insist that the TSA’s screeners — some of whom had to look at revealing X-ray images of passengers, others of whom have to perform those pat-downs — are not “perverts.” Though incidents were not widespread, TSA officers reported being mocked, threatened, even butted in the head.
They should have gotten the opposite reaction then. We hope they do now.