Security Theater

December 29, 2009

Bruce Schneier, who I have mentioned here many time before, has an excellent new opinion piece up at the CNN Web site, “Is Aviation Security Mostly for Show?”.   (No prize will be awarded for guessing his answer.)  He makes the case once again that much of the public response to terrorist incidents is based on a form of “magical thinking”, and that what will make us more secure is better intelligence and police work, and better capacity for emergency response, rather than counter-measures designed to combat specific terrorist tactics.

Terrorism is rare, far rarer than many people think. It’s rare because very few people want to commit acts of terrorism, and executing a terrorist plot is much harder than television makes it appear.

The best defenses against terrorism are largely invisible: investigation, intelligence, and emergency response. But even these are less effective at keeping us safe than our social and political policies, both at home and abroad. However, our elected leaders don’t think this way: They are far more likely to implement security theater against movie-plot threats.

Some of the movie-plot mentality shows up even in small details.  For example, I’ve noted before that, in the Christmas Day incident on a Northwest flight, news reports have said that the suspect used 80 grams of the explosive PETN.  I have seen this now in several newspaper and wire service accounts, and I find it very interesting that none of these accounts has converted the quantity to units more familiar to most Americans: 2.8 ounces.   It may not even be a conscious choice, but I suspect that omission is because “80 grams” is unfamiliar and sounds scarier.

The whole concept of a “War on Terror” is another example of security theater.  Terror is a tactic, not a government or a state actor that can be conquered by force.  The tactic is successful to the extent that people are terrorized.  As Schneier says, no conceivable terrorist attack can destroy Western civilization or the US government; only our own foolish reactions could do that.  The best response is to refuse to be terrorized:

The best way to help people feel secure is by acting secure around them. Instead of reacting to terrorism with fear, we — and our leaders — need to react with indomitability, the kind of strength shown by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill during World War II.

The whole essay is well worth reading.

Update, Tuesday, December 29, 15:30

Bruce Schneier was interviewed on this topic on the Rachel Maddow show on MS-NBC.

%d bloggers like this: