Inquirer Editorial: TSA takes a stab at smarter security

Portion of a document showing blades allowed and prohibited under a new policy. TSA
Portion of a document showing blades allowed and prohibited under a new policy. TSA (TSA)
Posted: March 14, 2013

It's easy to dump on the Transportation Security Administration, the toddler-searching, Gatorade-confiscating, "junk"-touching agency American travelers love to hate. So when it managed last week to generate such alarming headlines as "TSA to allow knives on planes," it's not surprising that an uproar ensued.

But the trouble is not so much the TSA's new policies on permissible carry-on items. It's the old, ill-conceived policies from which the agency is awkwardly attempting to extricate itself.

The TSA announced that it would open the airways not only to pocketknives and other small blades, but also to an odd hodgepodge of sporting equipment once construed as a threat, including pool cues, ski poles, and toy baseball bats. Airline and government unions, as well as a chorus of politicians, are objecting.

The new policy is counterintuitive enough to have called for more public-relations finesse from the TSA. But despite our indelible collective memory that the 9/11 hijackers were armed only with box-cutters - one type of small blade that is still banned for obvious symbolic and emotional reasons - keeping airplanes free of every potential weapon was always a quixotic and counterproductive errand.

As several experts and commentators have noted, countless objects, many of them kept aboard most planes, could be used as or easily turned into weapons at least as effective as a pocketknife.

Let's not forget that the government long ago abandoned its post-9/11 efforts to keep the nation's tweezers and nail clippers on the ground. This latest change brings TSA policies still closer to international security standards. Reinforced cockpit doors, air marshals, and passenger and flight crew awareness are likely the most effective protections against another 9/11-style hijacking.

Not that any of that has stopped the TSA from attempting to rid the skies of all manner of theoretically dangerous tchotchkes for years. The Wall Street Journal documented some of the proceeds last year in a visit to a state surplus store selling TSA-confiscated items - from shelves full of souvenir snow globes, marked down to two bucks apiece, to Swiss Army knives sold by the pound.

While inflicting untold misery on the traveling masses, such monumental low-percentage efforts have distracted the TSA from looking for explosives and other true threats to air travelers. The agency has earned much of the reflexive derision it gets, but this move away from pointless security theater is part of the solution.

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