Before last week, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers were little more than agents of inconvenience to the frustrated traveling public — brigades of blue-shirted guards demanding your belt and shoes, and the 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 did, other than horrifying the nation by allegedly slaying that officer and wounding two others and a teacher, was to start a debate about making airport checkpoints safer. The tragedy should encourage Americans to appreciate those who do the thankless job of running the 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 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 calls for giving them arrest powers. It’s not clear how that would protect them from 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.
There always will be risks at these checkpoints. TSA officers’ job is to filter out the biggest dangers.
To create a controlled airport environment on the other side, the checkpoints must be exposed to the outside world and are filled with mobs of people. They are conspicuous symbols of a security system that, while necessary to make terrorist attacks and hijackings more difficult, some Americans detest.
That is only one reason Americans should appreciate, not disrespect, TSA officers. Most officers will never face a hostile shooter. But all must deal with the mundane, everyday toil of enforcing the rules on an often-impatient public.
The last time the TSA made 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 invasive. It triggered frustration that too often is taken out on those at the bottom of the TSA apparatus.
Union leaders had to insist that the TSA screeners — some of whom had to look at revealing X-ray images of passengers, others of whom have to perform pat-downs — are not “perverts.” Though such incidents were not widespread, TSA officers reported being mocked and threatened.
They should have gotten the opposite reaction then. We hope they do now.