01/30/2012 02:15 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2012

Security Theatrics: The Senator and the TSA

No doubt, by now, you are aware of the run-in Senator Randal Paul had with the Transportation Security Administration. For the record, I have no horse in this race. I'm not particularly smitten with Paul and think the TSA ought to be replaced.

In this incident, the Senator was flying to Washington from Nashville when TSA agents claimed the "nudie" scanner they use to strip people of their garments detected an "anomaly" around his knee. The TSA seems impervious to logic and immediately decided no second scan can be done and that an intrusive, "pat-down" was necessary. Paul showed them the knee with the alleged anomaly and yet they still insisted he had to go through the humiliating experience of having a stranger touch almost his entire body. These days, that experience is enough to bring women to tears as agents fondle her breasts and feel her genitals.

It is perfectly understandable that Paul would refuse such a "service," no matter how benevolent Janet Napolitano thinks her agents are being in "offering" it to us.

Paul was then placed in a cubicle and when he stepped outside was ordered back inside. Having seen how TSA agents bark orders at the public I believe him when he says they were not polite about it.

They refused to let Senator Paul fly to Washington. They refused to let him leave. When he called that "detention" the TSA denied he was ever detained. defines detain as, "To keep from proceeding, delay or retard." The TSA seems to have their own definition. They clearly detained the Senator. They did not let him proceed, nor would they allow him to leave until they decided he was free to go. That is detention, no matter what euphemism the bureaucrats want to use for it. And this happens regularly though not usually with high-profile individuals.

On the other side of the aisle, Sen. Claire McCaskill said she is bothered constantly by the TSA due to having an artificial joint. McCaskill says that one specific TSA agent is particularly bad. "If I see her coming, I like just tense up because I know it's going to be ugly in terms of the way she conducts her pat-downs." That the TSA is abusive to people of all political stripes is no virtue.

In fact, it just shows how incompetent the TSA is. They are swatting flies with sledgehammers. In other words, they cause a lot of damage for the amount of good they do.

The high profile cases we've seen of TSA abuses shows their lack of focus. Clearly the TSA very quickly learned they were harassing a Senator. Did they really believe he was a risk? Lenore Zimmerman, 85, was forced to strip for the TSA. A few days later, Ruth Sherman, 88, was stripped so agents could inspect a colostomy bag. Both women described humiliating experiences. The TSA denied everything and then later issued an apology, claiming that procedure had not been followed. Somehow the TSA gets away with merely apologizing for doing what they repeatedly claim they don't do.

No one in their right mind would think two elderly women were likely to be agents of Jihad. Last I knew, Jewish grandmothers were not prime recruits. Neither are Senators.

The TSA is not engaged in focused investigations meant to stop terrorism. They are engaged in Security Theater. They make everyone suffer in order to drive home that they protect people. Unfocused investigations, however, are hit or miss affairs. Time spent harassing elderly Jewish grandmothers cannot be spent elsewhere. Resources are not unlimited. They cannot subject every passenger to strip searchers and detention in cubicles. There are only so many orders that can be barked out per hour.

Government bureaucrats tend to ignore basic rules of economics. As any decent economist will tell you, you can't have everything you want. Resources are always scarce. If you take more of A then you end up with less of B. Spending more time with old women and Senators means less time with passengers who might actually pose threats.

Security Theater isn't so much about reducing threats as it is about convincing the public they are reducing threats. Good investigations into terrorism are not visible. Delaying millions of people for hours at the airport, having TSA agents barking orders at them, scanning them with practically nude photos, fondling their breasts and genitals--but they wear gloves!--dumping suitcases, checking out the colostomy bags of old women, all of this is highly visible. That sends the message the TSA wants. They want the theatrics to send the message they are making people safer.

But are they? They spend less time with real investigations, while inconveniencing millions and humiliating people. Of the top five complaints people have regarding flying, four of them are entirely TSA related. Foreign tourists have described US airports as the worst in terms of passenger travel. A survey of foreign tourists found "One-third of the travelers said they would not visit here again because of rude treatment at airports by security officials toward non-U.S. passport holders." An Auckland to London flight with Air New Zealand used to land at LAX for refueling but complaints from passenger about how they were treated resulted in the flight being rerouted through Vancouver instead.

This is the problem with the sledgehammer approach favored by so many politicians and bureaucrats. It does a great deal of collateral damage and does some good, but not as much as other approaches might. Along the way, this approach makes some spectacular blunders and creates a great deal of resentment.

The one exception I would make to the focused approach, however, is with Sen. Paul and his colleagues, and all TSA top officials. I do think they should be permanently flagged for extensive scrutiny at the airports, but not because I think they are potential hijackers--I just think they should be constantly reminded what they imposed on the rest of us. Somehow, I suspect this would bring about necessary reforms.