Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Get In the Box, Peasant

Twenty years on, we can say the TSA is not about security or the law; it is about will.

TSA Demonstrates New Imaging Technology At Reagan National Airport
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

During one college summer, I worked as an excavator at an archaeological dig in Turkey, a job for which I showed little natural facility and, in truth, not much promise of improvement. A night owl in those years, I disliked the schedule; worse was being largely unable to communicate with my men. (My Turkish is still heavily weighted toward explaining how I want dirt moved.) I did not have the knack real archaeologists have for seeing a site’s painting, the strokes of rubbish and dirt and architectural debris adding up to, miraculously, a distinct piece of history.

I did, however, enjoy a great deal of traveling that summer—throwing a toothbrush and a change of underwear into my backpack and taking an evening bus up the dusty road to wherever. Turkish bus travel is a civilized affair, and it is perfectly feasible to ride overnight and wake up fresh enough to spend the day touring Ankara. I still think about those trips whenever I’m traveling, now weighed down with car seats and diaper bags and the other impedimenta of settled life; I certainly reflected on it while flying last weekend. Even daytime trips now leave me worn and unfit for anything but hard drinking.


Of course, the freedom of the Turkish road is an illusion for even the most lightly packed American air travelers. Twenty-two years and three presidents after the September 11 attacks, the blue-clad wretched of the earth are still standing between you and your airplane, touching you inappropriately and blasting you with radiation, telling you to take your shoes off and, sometimes, not to take your shoes off. Osama is dead; Khalid Sheikh Mohamed has been rotting in Cuba for two decades; the Afghan war recedes in memory; but the Transportation Security Administration is forever.

I don’t travel much anymore, and the security gantlet this weekend was gentler than I remembered: Impedimenta and all, we were through in ten minutes. Some baggage-screening machines have been replaced with newer, more expensive machines that reduce the bottlenecks between the checkpoint for boarding passes and the body imaging, where travelers scramble to take off their shoes and belts and take out their electronics. The regulations on fluids have been recently relaxed, and I was allowed to keep my belt on. Three-quarters of the lanes were closed, as usual, but the staff working the open ones were unusually competent.

Yet the relative ease of passage, while a relief, was accompanied by an odd pang of—sadness? Depression, or despair, perhaps; the sense that all this, the hugely expensive high-tech machines from industrial titans, the mysterious scribbles on our boarding passes, the screens showing Alejandro Mayorkas’s gleaming skull and bulging eyes, isn't for anything. I realized as I put on my coat by the benches of indignity—the little cluster of steel seats where the unshod and discombobulated recompose themselves—that I had gotten a Bic lighter through. 

How could this have happened? I felt vaguely criminal. Getting a lighter through security is a clear violation of the rules. Will they come after me? Has there been a mistake? Am I getting away/resisting arrest? Should I go back and plead for leniency? Violation of the rules, yes; but so inconsequential that it is blindingly obvious that there shouldn’t be a rule in the first place. I did not go back.

But that is when the despair set in. The easier and more trivial the security process, the clearer it becomes that it is just a ritual, a sort of loyalty test. “They” are just making you do something for the government. It is not about justice; it is not about any particular result. We aren’t pursuing some goal badly, to which it would be easy to be reconciled; we’re just doing something. That kind of yawning unreason is hard to swallow for a man wrangling two car seats and a hungry toddler.


The TSA makes sure that it is spread far and wide when they have a “win”—the shoe bomber and the underwear bomber, the record number of guns confiscated in the past year—giving the lie to the group’s claims that the agency doesn’t disclose the plots it foils for national security reasons. The agency has consistently failed security audits—catastrophically failed, too. (Ninety-five percent failure isn’t the result of an off day.) For their trouble, they received $10.3 billion for 2023.

In short, it is about will. Saying “uncle” isn’t prohibitively difficult, and it doesn’t make much sense; that is why the bully makes you do it. Take off your shoes, get in the nude picture machine, and say “uncle” for Uncle Sam today. Like the War on Terror’s military operations, which dragged out for decades just because, the Bush-era transit security measures are set to continue indefinitely. There are no live legislative proposals to curtail or end the permanent state of “heightened security.” Again, we’re just doing something. 

The TSA regime paved the way for the Covid-19 public health regime, of course. Mask mandates and lockdowns and making people engage in humiliating public screening rituals—the pandemic was the second great awakening of the American security state. It looks as if the pandemic measures were roughly as effective as the TSA at achieving their stated goals; as some public figures admitted—indeed, cheerfully announced—it was about getting everyone to do something. A cloth mask has nothing to do with public health, but it is the “uncle” that the bully has settled on.

The characteristic of our time is a combination of the arbitrary, ineffective, and cruel—we cannot stop murder, and we cannot stop the massive influx of narcotics over our southern border, but we can still make American citizens take off their shoes in public. Agents of the Fisc pursue / absconding tax defaulters through / the sewers of provincial towns. The governing class isn’t interested in keeping you safe, healthy, or sane, but it’s happy to see you compliant. That won’t change any time soon.

But hey, at least you can fly with a full-size toothpaste now.