It’s time to recognize the market-fundamentalist elephant in the airport security screening room

Some of the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority’s sub-contracted passenger screening supervisors at Edmonton International Airport. Fortunately for them, theirs won’t be the heads that roll. Below: Skylar Murphy, the 18-year-old brainiac with a recreational pipe bomb; the proverbial elephant in the room.

Canadian airports really do have a security problem with fundamentalists: market fundamentalists!

Everyone knows that if Skylar Murphy, Edmonton International Airport’s adolescent pipe bomb brainiac, had been Skylar Mohammed, not only would he still be in jail, but the nation would be convulsed with the efforts of the usual suspects from Sun News Network, the conservative “movement” and the Interwebs to bring us all to a fever pitch of hatred and hysteria.

This is so obvious it’s even been said aloud a few times in the mainstream media, not to mention in chatter on Twitter, which illustrates that now and then common sense can pop up in the most unexpected places.

Moreover, the crowd that constantly complains about little old (white) ladies having to take off their tennis shoes at the airport when we ought to be going after more obvious candidates for harassment (and we all know who they have in mind) has been strangely quiet these past few days.

It’s no certainty, sad to say, that large numbers of Canadians would have been able to keep their sense of perspective if Mr. Murphy had indeed been Mr. Mohammed and the front page of the Sun was right there on the table at Tim Horton’s telling us whom to hate, and why.

Regardless, the profiling issue at the heart of the gong show that began on Sept. 20 when Mr. Murphy walked through security with a working pipe bomb in his camera bag is not “the elephant in the room” in the sense that idiom is normally used to describe an important issue no one is talking about.

But there is an elephant in this room, and it’s how the market fundamentalist ideology of several recent federal governments contributed to the situation that unfolded when Mr. Murphy, then 18, had the coruscating idea of taking his pipe bomb for a plane ride.

The federal government, of course, is the jurisdiction responsible for transportation security. And even if successive Canadian governments hadn’t been all that engaged by the topic of air security, notwithstanding their protestations to the contrary, they had to pay attention after Sept. 11, 2001, because our next-door neighbour and No. 1 trading partner became rather focused on the subject for obvious reasons.

Before the 911 terrorist attacks on the United States, the Canadian government was quite happy to leave the heavy lifting on airport security to the airlines.

Under the circumstances of the post-911 world, though, they had to appear to up their game, under pressure both from the Americans and the Canadian travelling public, which after all is mostly made up of voters.

As a result, on April Fool’s Day 2002, we got CATSA, the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority.

Notwithstanding the symbolism of the date, this was a genuine step forward. It makes sense to have a centralized air travel security agency run by the government to screen passengers, airport staff and luggage, and to ensure the validity and proper use of airport security passes.

But this is where the elephant in the room appears – or, rather, doesn’t appear.

Because for decades now, our Liberal and Conservative federal governments have been in thrall to the demonstrably false notion that the private sector always does a better job of everything and anything than governments do.

In their hearts, most Canadians know this is baloney – which is why they want real cops, firefighters and paramedics around when there’s an actual crisis, not some doofus in a private security company’s uniform schlumping back to the main floor to see if he can locate the fire extinguisher and a first-aid kit.

This is why CATSA’s brain trust engaged in the deception that is at the heart of last fall’s debacle at EIA.

Instead of hiring its own airport security personnel, training them properly, including teaching them how to use their noggins in unanticipated circumstances, then paying them a salary appropriate to the gravity of their duties, CATSA sub-contracted the vital job of manning the security front lines of our airports to for-profit security firms.

Now, the services of such companies cost plenty because there are corporate bottom lines to pad, executive nests to feather, donations to be made to right-wing think tanks and huge dividends to pay to well-heeled shareholders.

In fact, after the promises are all broken and the dust from the bidding process has settled, private contracts often cost more than it would to train and pay a civil servant and provide her with a decent defined-benefit pension plan for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business to carp about.

Maybe CATSA saved some money, maybe they didn’t. They’ll never be forthcoming with the facts, so we’re unlikely ever to know.

Regardless, what CATSA did do was hire corporations that owe a duty to their shareholders to scrimp on training and equipment for their employees, and to pay those employees as little as possible – so little they’re bound to have very limited commitment to the job they’re supposed to do.

This gives rise to what we might call the Mercenary Syndrome. Mercenary soldiers are all very well when victory is a sure thing. But when the going gets tough, tough mercenaries bug off. And who can blame them? Mercenaries have no stake in the battle but their paycheque, and someone else is always around willing to pay for their services. Which is why, despite all the propaganda about the market, sensible governments of all ideological stripes maintain their own armies.

When you think about it, some private security firm’s minions are cut from the same piece of cloth – which is why we’d rather have a real police officer looking out for us, not just because she’s better trained and paid, but because she has a sense of duty inculcated by her training, not to mention the legal right to arrest some clown trying to sneak a pipe bomb onto an airliner.

Should it really surprise us that a for-profit company’s employees gave the bomb back to the guy they caught and wished him bon voyage – and, when he didn’t want to take it with him after all, left it lying around all day while thousands of travellers filed past? Really, what did you expect?

Like you, the sub-contractor’s employees the victims of a scam, carried out with the connivance of this government agency.

CATSA requires airport security sub-contractors to dress their poorly paid, ill-trained, disengaged, fearful, non-union-protected employees in official uniforms that give travellers the false impression they’re dealing with real Canadian government security specialists who know what they’re doing when they confiscate our shampoo.

Underneath the snazzy uniforms, though, they’re just barely trained rent-a-cops paid not much above Alberta’s disgraceful minimum wage. It’s hardly the front-line employees’ fault that on Sept. 20 they didn’t have a clue.

Well, it’s time to put an end to this fakery – before the U.S. authorities wise up and impose more restrictions on Canadian travellers.

Instead of concentrating on which poorly trained employee’s head should roll for this fiasco, it’s time to recognize the obvious – that regardless of 40 years of uninterrupted market fundamentalist propaganda and the charming faith of several recent federal governments in the goodness and wisdom of the Almighty Market, some jobs can only be done properly by public employees.

As our American neighbours, who are not exactly socialists, recognized when they set up the Transportation Security Administration after 911, airport security is one of them. Even the Mexicans, despite their economic challenges, do a better job in this area.

It’s time for Canada to dump the incompetent for-profit contractors, who are barely capable of ensuring too much toothpaste doesn’t make it into airplane cabins.

It’s time to make CATSA a real transportation security organization, staff it properly, train its employees and pay them a decent salary.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

8 Comments on "It’s time to recognize the market-fundamentalist elephant in the airport security screening room"

  1. Neal says:

    Such a great post! I just fear many will miss the meat of it since you wasted so much space at the top ranting about racial profiling that had nothing to do with this story what-so-ever. Next time you have something this important to discuss, and in such a good manner, try to avoid derailing yourself for your own pet peeves.

    • Sure, Neai, will do … Of course, if I hadn’t, someone would have excoriated me for that! That’s the great thing about writing your own blog … no one may read it, but you can indulge your pet peeves to your heart’s content!

  2. rangerkim says:

    Oh!, I don’t know. I think you nailed it right on David. You can never waste enough words describing actual examples of why Harper conservatives are just plain wrong.

  3. jerrymacgp says:

    I am reminded of a concept I once read in the writings of a prominent economist (it might have been John Kenneth Galbraith, but don’t quote me on that, it’s been several years), of two contrasting roles in society: Governors and Traders. Governors oversee the functioning of society and the economy; they set the rules, and conduct the monitoring necessary to ensure they are followed, and then they enforce them when they are not. Traders engage in the market for market goods and services; Traders are expected to follow the rules set for the economy, such as those designed to ensure products and services are safe, and those designed to ensure true competition (such as those against combines and monopolies). Failure to honour those distinctions is unhealthy for a society.

    Communism failed in part because it attempted to cause government to carry out the proper functions of Traders. Similarity, free-market fundamentalism fails because it attempts to allow or cause Traders to carry out the proper functions of Governors. I for one do not want to buy my groceries, or my clothes, or my home maintenance supplies and equipment, or my vehicle, from a government store. Conversely, I do not want policing or public safety functions carried out by private, for-profit corporations whose sole accountability is to their owners/shareholders.

  4. Elaine Fleming says:

    What often runs through my mind when a private company has been contracted to perform a service for government is: what happens if that company goes belly up, or decides it is more lucrative to go into something else like hamburger joints or whatever?

  5. Hana Razga says:

    Expect more scrutiny when traveling…..for awhile anyway

  6. Alex P says:

    Politics is often, too often, about finding the cheapest way to show you care. Until the moment an eighteen year old who packs a pipe bomb in his camera bag is arguing with airport security about who should keep the bomb. Dude.

    Profit at the top and underpaying at the bottom is just a guarantee for poor frontline performance. Ask yourself, why do retail firms need focus groups to decide about holliday greetings? Didn’t the staff have mothers?

    Time for people to say a little prayer of thanks everytime they drink city water. Praise be to the workers who keep the cholera out of the water I am about to drink.

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