Milton Friedman once said “Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program.”
Although there are no, or at least very few, absolutes in the world, this one comes pretty close. Absent any built-in sunset provisions, government programs, rules and regulations continue long after they’ve served their purpose.
With that in mind, we were surprised when Transportation Safety Administration Director Edmund Hawley announced plans earlier this month to change the list of banned items allowed in airline carry-on luggage, to permit some items that are currently prohibited. These would include scissors less than four inches long and tools such as screwdrivers less than seven inches long.
The reason given for loosening the rules was that TSA officials are faced with a tighter budget and employee morale problems and this is a way to address those issues. Officials say too much of the screeners’ time is taken up searching carry-ons for sharp objects. They estimate one of every four bags is opened to remove scissors. The TSA wants to allocate resources toward searching out explosives. Reinforced cockpit doors on airliners and other security measures make another Sept. 11-type attack unlikely, the agency says.
We applaud this dose of common sense — something rarely seen in bureaucracies — and hope to see more of it in the future. Most TSA rules were adopted in an emergency fashion to address a threat of unknown proportions. Now that time has passed, we can look at results to determine which rules address legitimate concerns and which ones simply make the feds appear to be doing something to ensure air safety.
Quite frankly, we’ve always thought the no-scissors rule was one of the latter.
It’s not that scissors aren’t dangerous; they are designed to cut things and that makes them potential weapons. But we cannot ban all potential weapons from airplanes. A resourceful attacker can use many common objects as weapons. Besides, the current rules are inconsistent. A three-inch-long pair of manicure scissors is prohibited because they have a sharp point, but nine-inch knitting needles are allowed. Knitting needles have sharp points; what’s the difference? A belt can be used as a garotte; should men have to walk down the aisle to their seats lugging their carry-on with one hand while the other holds up their pants?
Don’t misunderstand — we’re not making light of the rules because they’re not important. We’re doing it because they are important. Our nation has limited resources to put toward air safety and to use them to pluck small scissors out of every fourth bag is a misallocation of those resources.
Not everyone is looking forward to the changes. Corey Caldwell, spokeswoman for the flight attendants’ union said, “TSA needs to take a moment to reflect on why they were created in the first place — after the world had seen how ordinary household items could create such devastation.”
As a representative of workers who spend a large part of their lives in the air, it’s understandable that Caldwell would voice concerns. But she seems to ignore the many instances in recent years in which passengers have taken it upon themselves to help control unruly travelers.
One of the many things that has changed since the terrorist attacks is that Americans will no longer sit idly by while some terrorist bent on death and destruction carries out his plans. In the can-do spirit of our forefathers, today’s Americans are more likely to take action to protect themselves rather than count on others, especially government, whose help might not come.