More Security Theater

December 24, 2011

I’ve said here before that many of the security measures, such as the new full-body scanners, put in place since 9/11 by the Transportation Security Administration [TSA], are to a large extent what Bruce Schneier has called “security theater“: actions that, while often expensive and intrusive, are not effective in increasing security, and are mostly designed to make people feel better.

Vanity Fair has a recent article, by Charles Mann, that provides some more evidence for this view.  Mr. Mann makes a trip through security checkpoints at Reagan National Airport [DCA] here in Washington, accompanied by Bruce Schneier.   On his way to meet Schneier, he strolls through security with a fake boarding pass. And sometimes the security measures seem designed to catch only particularly stupid terrorists.

As I waited at security with my fake boarding pass, a T.S.A. agent had darted out and swabbed my hands with a damp, chemically impregnated cloth: a test for explosives. Schneier said, “Apparently the idea is that al-Qaeda has never heard of latex gloves and wiping down with alcohol.”

After police and intelligence agencies in the UK uncovered (by good police work, not by airport screening) a plot to attack airliners with liquid explosives, the TSA banned most liquids.  This included medicines and even, for a short time, breast milk from nursing mothers.  Now, apparently, shrink-wrapped medicine containers are allowed.

After a public outcry, T.S.A. officers began waving through medical supplies that happen to be liquid, including bottles of saline solution. “You fill one of them up with liquid explosive,” Schneier said, “then get a shrink-wrap gun and seal it. The T.S.A. doesn’t open shrink-wrapped packages.”

Even if the passenger screening were effective, there are many people, like airline employees and airport concession workers, who pass the security perimeter with minimal checking. It is hard to see a rational justification for the current approach.

There is an argument that, after the enormous psychological shock of 9/11, a certain amount of security theater may have done some good, in reassuring people that someone was looking out for their safety.  Terrorism is, in a certain sense, a form of theater: its objective is not the direct damage it causes, but the effect attacks have on the population at large.  So a certain amount of “counter-theater” may make some sense, but certainly not indefinitely at enormous cost; and it has the potential to become counter-productive.

At first the policeman in the train station reassures you. Later, the uniform sends a message: train travel is dangerous.

As a society, we really need to stop pursuing the chimera of perfect security.  It has always been true, and always will be, that, as the bumper sticker says, “Stuff Happens” (or words to that effect).

Refuse to be terrorized.


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