The ongoing government shutdown, currently the longest in American history, has a number of very real consequences that impede many people’s lives. Many federal workers are going unpaid, food safety inspections are coming to a halt and food assistance programs are quickly running out of funding.
At the same time, the shutdown has also served to demonstrate the superfluous nature of other programs and agencies, especially those that engage in “security theater.” Security theater refers to practices designed to give a sense of improved security without actually making people measurably safer. Since its foundation almost two decades ago, there has been no clearer example of security theater than the Transportation Security Administration.
The Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, was founded a little over two months after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, on the same wave of fear and panic that allowed the Bush Administration to push through the Patriot Act, to create the Department of Homeland Security and to invade Afghanistan and Iraq. While its nominal purpose is to prevent terror attacks, there is no evidence of its effectiveness in doing so — as recently as 2015, the agency failed to detect smuggled weapons during tests 95% of the time.
Keep in mind that this is how well the TSA performs when its employees are actually getting paid.
The government considers the security theater performed by the TSA as “essential” enough that the agency must remain operational and keep its employees working, but not “essential” enough that these employees continue to receive their wages. As a result, since the beginning of the government shutdown, the percentage of “unscheduled absences” of TSA employees has steadily risen, increasing from three percent to seven percent in less than a month. If the shutdown continues, airports will have to shut down due to a lack of TSA personnel, which the government considers essential.