TSA asks disabled boy to walk

Wednesday, Feb 17, 2010 4:38 pm
William Barnes

The Philly Inquirer reports that a 4-year old boy with leg braces was made to remove the braces and walk unassisted through a medical detector prior to getting on a plane. There’s a lot of things wrong with this story, but there’s an angle I think is being ignored: what about the security guards?

Whenever something like this happens (see also, the 8-year old boy who was given a full body pat-down because his name was on a terror watch list) people rail against the unimaginative security guards who mindlessly apply stupid guidelines. Poor security guards.

They are given rules written by some people in a board room with two goals: avoid planes blowing up, and avoid getting blamed when planes blow up. So you end up with a rule saying something like: “Everybody must remove all metal from their body and walk through the metal detector.” It’s easy to sit back and say that, obviously, there should be an exception in the 4-year old’s case. But if you’re the guard, this puts you in a really awkward position. You could be fired for making up exceptions.

It might be argued that the TSA rule-makers intended for some common-sense to be applied by the enforcers, but what good does this do to the guy on the front-line who has to say to himself “Am I willing to risk my job over this?” I’ve never heard of a TSA regulation stating that a guard can choose not to apply a rule at his discretion. It makes me wonder. Could all these horrible applications of stupid rules be some kind of message from the guards? It’s not hard to imagine that faced with a choice like that, the guard might actually hope to bring some attention to the situation by enforcing the rule in the most robot-like manner possible. It reminds me of a section in the Illuminatus Trilogy where Hagbard Celine explains that all workers are unconscious saboteurs, just looking for a way to damage their employers by slavish adherence to the rules.

It’s part of a larger problem with employer-employee relationships: a lack of autonomy. Employees have to be very conservative in their application of rules or they get fired. Eventually, you end up with McDonalds. Every second of the employee’s work day is calculated and governed by rules. And maybe it works when you want to get a hamburger ready in 57 seconds, but it doesn’t work in a lot of other situations where giving the employee the freedom to think for themselves would really help customers.

We think about rules as being a way to protect customers (ie: by ensuring quality service) but what they really do is prevent creative employees from finding better ways to do their jobs. When you take your computer to Best Buy (for the record, I’ve never bought a computer from Best Buy) to get fixed (for the record, I’ve never taken a computer to get fixed), the kid at the store has a checklist he’s supposed to follow. Problem is, the checklist is probably written by a lawyer somewhere with the help of a consultant whose last computer was a Commodore 64. It will address some of the most obvious problems and then say format and reinstall everything.

Every time somebody says that someone should pass a law or make a rule telling employees they shouldn’t do something bad, I can’t help but think we’re asking people to be robots. Rather than try to encourage creative people who understand their jobs and do them well, we’re trying to turn jobs into something that anybody can do. I don’t dispute there are some good areas for regulation, but sometimes you have to come out and say: “We trust your judgment.”