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Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, I attended a conference in Bozeman, Mont. Bozeman is a delightful place in the southeast corner of the state. It's home to a university and close to Yellowstone National Park. In late summer (when I went) it's a magical area of the country. But it is also (forgive me for saying so) pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Flights go from Bozeman to Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, Denver—maybe a few other places as well, but you get the idea. The jets that fly there are generally smaller, and they don't go too far away.
The recent outcry over the TSA’s initiative to reassess deployment of its resources is based on flawed logic, and one simple experience I had in Bozeman illustrates why.
Still, Bozeman had its TSA station, just like every other airport in post-9/11 America. I remember it pretty well because of the experience I had that day 10 years ago as I left the conference. One of my fellow attendees, an older woman, was a federal judge. And yet she was pulled aside for secondary screening and the Transportation Security Administration spent five to seven minutes going through her luggage (much to her embarassment, I imagine).
I tell this story because it makes a point—that every minute TSA officials spent doing that secondary screening was an utter waste of time and resources. It was a waste on two grounds: First, it was a waste at the individual level because this particular person—a federal judge—was absolutely, positively of zero threat to aviation. Perhaps that could have been surmised by looking at her, an older African-American woman, no more than 5 feet 5 inches tall; but certainly her status as a federal judge could have been determined with a simple identification. But, second, it was also a waste because Bozeman was not going to be a source of onward terrorist threats. To get there in the first instance, terrorists would have had to either cross the U.S. border with Canada by car or fly into Bozeman from some other venue. And in flying out of Bozeman as part of an attempted attack, they would be systematically threatening fewer people by traveling in smaller planes that would do less damage.
Is the risk in Bozeman zero? Of course not. But anyone who studies risk assessment knows that zero risk is fundamentally impossible to achieve. We can only make comparative risk-based decisions and by any measure Bozeman is a low-risk venue.
This is why it is so sad that the TSA's mere consideration of modifying staff deployment to take account of the reduced risk at smaller airports was so quickly derided. To understand this, you don't have to agree with my colleague, Bruce Schnier, that all TSA activity is security theater. All you have to do is recognize that all risk is relative and that resources are not infinite. There is no reason—none at all—why the TSA should not be studying this problem. I don't have the data the agency does to make the assessment—but in the end, if the risk reduction is minimal and the costs are overly high, it rightly should consider changing its deployment of resources. Sadly, the security freak-out has already forced the TSA to back down. But the United States will never get the right mix of security and freedom if problems aren't looked at rationally.