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The passengers on United 93 removed a major threat to our national security: The potential for commercial aircraft to be transformed into missiles against specific targets. The remaining threat — largely from explosives — is real, but basically limited to the crew, passengers, and people immediately below them. Though nothing to scoff at, the risk to airplanes is no more grave than the risk to other potential targets.
Which rather makes one wonder why we continue to tolerate the existence of the Transportation Security Administration, especially given the risks to liberty it poses. As the Cato Daily Podcast notes, the TSA is now contemplating turning away passengers from states that don’t comply with the Real ID Act,* making it harder to opt out of body scanners. The agency is increasingly the spearhead of the movement to make domestic travel a privilege that can be granted and revoked at the whim of the federal government.
Of course, one could argue that the same is true of our highways, the use of which is conditional upon our education, licensing, and registration. But the analogy breaks down quickly. At least until recently, if you displayed a valid license plate and stayed within the confines of your lane and the law, that was generally enough for you to go about your business at liberty. In other words, travel by automobile still functions largely under a presumption of innocence, and most of the reasons you’d come to the attention of law enforcement relate directly to concern for others’ safety. The contrast to airline security in this regard could hardly be more pronounced.
Airline security is a serious matter. It needn’t be an affront to liberty to have some federal involvement or assistance. (Providing databases of potential terrorists seems like an obvious function, albeit one that’s been abused badly.) But the risks in a post-United 93 world largely accrue to the airlines and passengers. They should easily be able to exceed the TSA’s competency, and moreover, the airlines would have an incentive to innovate and compete against each other.
* I confess I am long overdue to form an opinion about this topic.