Piled on a table in a quiet conference room at the central terminal of Miami International Airport is a dazzling collection of items that could be used to bludgeon and stab one's way through a crowded airplane.
There's a pair of metal telescopic nunchucks, a silver Rambo knife sharp enough to plunge straight through an adult torso, plenty of box cutters, and a lead hammer that could crack a human skull like an egg.
That's just a week's worth of confiscations at MIA. Other recent pickups from air passengers there and at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport include a sword disguised as a cane, a fueled-up chainsaw, and the "explosively viable" shell of an 18th-century cannonball, according to reports from the Transportation Security Administration.
Oh yeah, and there have been 35 guns — most loaded and some with bullets in the chamber — taken from passengers this year at the two airports. Nationwide, nearly 1,000 guns have turned up at security checkpoints in 2012.
What possesses South Florida's weaponized wingnuts to try to bring this stuff onboard? Perhaps "absentmindedness [or] a failure to peruse a bag that was last used for a road trip," says Sari Koshetz, a pragmatic straw-blond TSA spokeswoman. "As more time has passed and 9/11 is not as vivid a memory, the trend is escalating."
Turns out that despite the many weapons uncovered, some people don't think the TSA is doing its job of foiling terrorists.
The agency has burned through about $60 billion since it was founded after the attacks 11 years ago. In 2012, it has an $8 billion budget and more than 58,000 employees. This past May, the U.S. House Oversight Committee issued a scathing report that claimed the agency was "wasting hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars," including $184 million worth of unused screening equipment that was sitting in storage.
Then there are the endless cries of discrimination and allegations that the agency unconstitutionally probes and scans civilians. "Security theater is security that looks good but doesn't do anything," Bruce Schneier, a security expert and author, tells New Times. "TSA is like that."
Schneier, based in Minneapolis, contends the agency hasn't stopped a single terrorist attack since its inception. The only things that have made planes safer in the wake of 9/11 are reinforced cockpit doors and passengers who know they have to fight back if conflict arises, he says. From Schneier's perspective, the TSA has wandered far from its sole mission of stopping terrorism and instead has made the country more prone to attacks that don't involve planes.
"We spend $8 billion on TSA," he says. "If terrorists go bomb shopping malls, we're kind of wasting our money."
To remain relevant and well-funded, the agency hypes the discovery of everything from snakes in a passenger's undergarments to chainsaws and pistols — contraband that would have been scrutinized and seized under pre-9/11 security measures, according to Schneier. "Anytime the TSA puts out a blog of cool things it seizes, it proves its irrelevance," he says. "These things have nothing to do with terrorism."
And though some South Florida travelers have been caught with dangerous items, they mostly aren't terrorists. Or maybe they are. It's tough to tell exactly how many people end up getting arrested for acts of packing stupidity. The TSA only discovers the weapons; it's up to local police, or federal agencies in certain cases, to decide who should be arrested. Most guns are simply returned to the owners, who are then allowed to store them. A kid carrying a toy gun through a checkpoint would just be asked to hand it over, but a guy with a steak knife concealed in his shoe — which happened this year at MIA — could face tougher consequences.
Miami-Dade police spokeswoman Aida Fina-Milian refused to turn over names of American citizens being held after airport arrests, claiming they are "protected as sensitive security information." The Broward Sheriff's Office was less like the KGB. It forked over two arrest reports from this year involving people who were caught with guns but no permit.
One of the culprits was Andre Ullysse, a 23-year-old Hollywood resident who had a loaded .40-caliber semiautomatic handgun in his bag when he showed up at the Fort Lauderdale airport April 5. Upon further investigation, police learned Ullysse was an active-duty soldier who was home on leave for two weeks. He wasn't taken into custody.
The other miscreant was Darrian Tillman of Virginia, a 24-year-old with shoot first tattooed across his stomach. Police records allege Tillman approached another passenger at the airport and asked if it was OK to bring a gun on a cruise ship. The passenger alerted police, Tillman's bag was searched, and now he's awaiting trial on felony firearm charges.
So, are these instances small victories in the War on Terror or props in TSA's security theater?
TSA advocates note that since the agency was formed, more than 6 billion flights have touched down safely on U.S. soil and thousands of weapons have been discovered at checkpoints. Over the years, it has had to adapt to shoe-bombers, underwear-bombers, and drunken travelers who think it's funny to say there's a bomb in their luggage — again, something that happened in Miami this year.
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Koshetz, the TSA spokeswoman, says the agency has evolved into a critical counterterrorism force whose battles extend far beyond what the average passenger sees at a checkpoint. "Let me ask you this: Do you want to sit next to someone with a knife or a venomous snake in their pocket? Do you have blind faith in the passenger next to you?" she says.
Are travelers really just forgetting it's not OK to bring a gun or knife or sword or cannonball to the most secure public facilities of our era? Consider these items seized at MIA: a marijuana grinder designed to look like a camouflage hand grenade, and a perfume bottle shaped like four sticks of dynamite. Who would intentionally try to carry these kinds of items onto a plane?
"There's a certain stress with air travel and the screening process and the delays," Chief Roy Liddicott of the Broward Sheriff's Office says. "People are nervous from the stress of air travel, so they just become forgetful, I guess." He recalls recently telling a permit-holding gun owner at the Fort Lauderdale airport that TSA screeners found a loaded firearm in his carry-on. "He almost passed out. He just totally forgot he had his gun on him," Liddicott says. When passengers have concealed-weapons permits, they're generally not taken into custody.
"We have yet to have a case that we felt the person was trying to sneak it on or had some nefarious reason to sneak it on," Liddicott says. "We've had stun guns, we've had Tasers, we've had collapsible batons. It's the same thing — people just forget."