CHICAGO: Once in a while, a government agency adopts a policy that is logical, hardheaded, based on experience and unswayed by cheap sentiment. This may be surprising enough to make you reconsider your view of bureaucrats. But not to worry: It usually doesn’t last.
In March, the federal Transportation Security Administration surprised the country by relaxing its ban on knives and other items. Starting April 25, it said, it would allow knives with blades shorter than 2.36 inches, as well as golf clubs, pool cues and hockey sticks.
That was before flight attendants and members of Congress vigorously denounced the idea as a dire threat to life and limb. It was also before two bombs went off at the Boston Marathon.
So it came as no great surprise when last week TSA announced it would retain the existing ban indefinitely so it could hear more from “the aviation community, passenger advocates, law enforcement experts and other stakeholders.”
A more plausible explanation is that TSA officials grasped the old Washington wisdom: Bureaucrats rarely get in trouble for being too careful. But if there were a single incident featuring a passenger and a blade, the agency would be tarred and feathered.
One of the stakeholders with a vested interest in the status quo is the store near the airport in Austin, Texas, that sells items confiscated by screeners. You can buy rolling pins, exercise weights and miniature baseball bats. Snow globes, reports the Wall Street Journal, go for $2. Scissors are $3. Swiss Army knives are so preposterously numerous they sell by the pound.
Preventing this needless accumulation of innocuous contraband is only one of the reasons the change made sense. Someone wielding a 2-inch blade can no longer hope to take over a plane and fly it into a large building, since cockpit doors are now reinforced and locked — and since passengers, with the experience of 9/11 in mind, will no longer sit by quietly while a hijacking takes place.
Many flights also have armed air marshals. As TSA administrator John Pistole explained, “A small pocketknife is simply not going to result in the catastrophic failure of an aircraft.”
Seizing snow globes and penknives wastes time and diverts attention from more dangerous items that might be smuggled on board, like bombs. Besides, anyone with malice in mind already has many alternative weapons available.
TSA allows pointed scissors with blades up to four inches long. It permits knitting needles. It blesses screwdrivers as long as seven inches. Glass bottles are not forbidden — though they can easily be broken and turned into lethal weapons.
But none of these facts was enough to prevent vehement objections to the proposal. U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., advised that “in the confined environment of an airplane, even a small blade in the hands of a terrorist can lead to disaster.” Sara Nelson, international vice president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, warned of “mayhem in the cabin caused by an out-of-control passenger with a knife.”
But terrorists have little to gain from airborne slashing sprees. If they had, they could be wreaking havoc with scissors and screwdrivers. In fact, they have been more intent on trying to bring down jets with explosives. If terrorists were content with cutting a few throats, there are plenty of places where they could do it on the ground.
The flight attendants’ union gives the impression that relaxing the knife ban would be a radical step into the unknown, with consequences that can only be imagined. In reality, it would merely be a return to something resembling the pre-9/11 status quo. Back then, small knives were not banned — but there was no epidemic of passengers erupting in homicidal rage upon being asked to return their seats to the upright position.
Nor has there been a spate of horror stories from the other side of the Atlantic, where the policy doesn’t apply. As TSA noted, “Small knives have been permitted in Europe for some time now, with no incidents that we are aware of.”
Small knives are also useful tools that many people find indispensable in the course of daily life, including the part that takes place on airplanes. But making life slightly better for travelers may not be enough to overcome the bureaucratic imperative: When in doubt, do nothing.
Chapman is a Chicago Tribune columnist. He blogs daily at newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/steve—chapman.