As we've reported here, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is currently suffering from what you might call "bad image syndrome," in which the afflicted, the TSA in this case, can't seem to help but embarrass itself on a regular basis.
Case in point: A TSA agent was photographed napping in uniform at LaGuardia Airport on Sunday (you can see the photo here). The media jumped on the story, and the public, which has all but had it with the agency, whipped itself into a frustrated frenzy. The TSA once again finds itself in the unenviable position of explaining what happened.
And that's where the image problem comes into play, because there's a simple fact not yet known: Was the agent on duty, or on break?
If the agent was on duty, well, it's obvious that the TSA must once again deal with the fallout of an employee let down, and respond to questions about its collective effectiveness and reliability.
The public, however, isn't waiting to find out. In comments across the Web, readers are lambasting the agency for yet another failure, citing this as further evidence of an agency bereft of competence and capability. The anger is understandable, considering the TSA's track record of late, and the implications of a worker sleeping on the job are serious: Does the TSA allow appropriate breaks? Are agents overworked to the point of exhaustion and, subsequently, ineffectiveness?
But it's just as possible the agent in question didn't actually do anything terribly wrong. Sure, napping in public, on one's break, is a bad choice, and an agent would certainly, and correctly, be reprimanded for doing so. If you need to nap, do it in the break room. And the TSA has taken pains to point out that the job is demanding, and employees should be allowed to rest if need be. After all, wouldn't you want your agents to be as fresh and awake as possible?
Make no mistake, the TSA has made its own bed, as the saying goes, with one incident after another for months now. And for the most part, the criticism that followed was appropriate. This is the TSA we're talking about, after all, one of the most vital components of our national security network.
But this incident, to me, calls for reserved judgment. It may turn out to look much worse than it is, which is likely a good way of thinking about the agency in general: For all its recent missteps and its bad image, we are still fundamentally safe. And stories like this serve to remind us that the agency is comprised of regular people who, just like us, go to work every day and try to do the best they can. The TSA as a whole may be graded on a pass/fail scale, but the people who do the actual work of keeping us safe deserve some benefit of the doubt, a degree of forgiveness.
At least until we find out what actually happened. And let's hope that, for once, there's nothing to see here.