A good place to begin is with the security procedures that started all the ruckus, the backscatter x-rays (also called “full body scanners” or “nude picture machines”) and enhanced pat downs. Ranging from the ethical to the medical, objections to these procedures are legion. For the moment we shall discount all of this censure and focus on the most utilitarian objection to the new procedures: they do not work. The Independent neatly summarizes the limitations of the new full-body scanners:
If a material is low density, such as powder, liquid or thin plastic – as well as the passenger’s clothing – the millimetre waves pass through and the object is not shown on screen. High- density material such as metal knives, guns and dense plastic such as C4 explosive reflect the millimetre waves and leave an image of the object.
“What are all these people complaining about? It’s like getting an X-ray. I would do absolutely anything if it makes air travel safer.”
“Okay, great. Just one more security measure, then. Would you kiss this picture of Janet Napolitano on your way in?”
“But that won’t make us any safer!”
“Oh.” (Kisses picture.) “Thanks, TSA, I feel better already!”
“Don’t mention it.”
“Now what are all these people complaining about? It’s just kissing a silly little picture.”
And that about sums it up. Eight years and $40,000,000,000 since its creation, the most the TSA can say for itself is that it makes airline passengers feel safer.
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.
A “movie-plot threat” is an overly specific attack scenario. Whether it’s terrorists with crop dusters, terrorists contaminating the milk supply, or terrorists attacking the Olympics, specific stories affect our emotions more intensely than mere data does.
To be sure, reasonable arguments can be made that some terrorist targets are more attractive than others: airplanes because a small bomb can result in the death of everyone aboard, monuments because of their national significance, national events because of television coverage, and transportation because of the numbers of people who commute daily.
But there are literally millions of potential targets in any large country — there are 5 million commercial buildings alone in the United States — and hundreds of potential terrorist tactics. It’s impossible to defend every place against everything, and it’s impossible to predict which tactic and target terrorists will try next.
Security is both a feeling and a reality. The propensity for security theater comes from the interplay between the public and its leaders.
When people are scared, they need something done that will make them feel safe, even if it doesn’t truly make them safer. Politicians naturally want to do something in response to crisis, even if that something doesn’t make any sense.
Often, this “something” is directly related to the details of a recent event. We confiscate liquids, screen shoes, and ban box cutters on airplanes. We tell people they can’t use an airplane restroom in the last 90 minutes of an international flight. But it’s not the target and tactics of the last attack that are important, but the next attack. These measures are only effective if we happen to guess what the next terrorists are planning.
If we spend billions defending our rail systems, and the terrorists bomb a shopping mall instead, we’ve wasted our money. If we concentrate airport security on screening shoes and confiscating liquids, and the terrorists hide explosives in their brassieres and use solids, we’ve wasted our money. Terrorists don’t care what they blow up and it shouldn’t be our goal merely to force the terrorists to make a minor change in their tactics or targets.
Our current response to terrorism is a form of “magical thinking.” It relies on the idea that we can somehow make ourselves safer by protecting against what the terrorists happened to do last time.
The problem with all these measures is that they’re only effective if we guess the plot correctly. Defending against a particular tactic or target makes sense if tactics and targets are few. But there are hundreds of tactics and millions of targets, so all these measures will do is force the terrorists to make a minor modification to their plot.
It’s magical thinking: If we defend against what the terrorists did last time, we’ll somehow defend against what they do one time. Of course this doesn’t work. We take away guns and bombs, so the terrorists use box cutters. We take away box cutters and corkscrews, and the terrorists hide explosives in their shoes. We screen shoes, they use liquids. We limit liquids, they sew PETN into their underwear. We implement full-body scanners, and they’re going to do something else. This is a stupid game; we should stop playing it.
But we can’t help it. As a species we’re hardwired to fear specific stories — terrorists with PETN underwear, terrorists on subways, terrorists with crop dusters — and we want to feel secure against those stories. So we implement security theater against the stories, while ignoring the broad threats.
The Fourth Amendment of the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution states:
The right of the people to be secure…against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.Under the Patriot Act, our private communications may be eavesdropped on, and personal transactions can be secretly scrutinized with self-written warrants (National Security Letters written by a federal agent) that prohibit your banker, librarian, or others served from notifying you of the search (you can’t even legally contest the warrant if you find out about it yourself, because if you complain to your lawyer or a court about it, you commit a felony by divulging that it exists). This act was originally justified by the War on Terror, but it has since been employed hundreds of thousands of times, often against innocent citizens swept up by innocent associations with alleged intelligence targets. The Obama administration is seeking to broaden the act still more.TSA searches are now gutting the few remaining Fourth Amendment protections against search and seizure. Essentially, our government, supported by the courts, has defined a “Constitution-Free Zone” incorporating all airports and the area of the United States within one hundred miles of a border or the coast (termed the “functional equivalent of the border, or extended border”), in which constitutional protections under the Fourth Amendment are deemed not applicable, and are routinely flouted by the Department of Homeland Security.The Department of Homeland Security has the authority to stop, search, and detain anyone and anything (including the contents of your computer), for any reason, within a “Constitution-Free Zone,” resident or traveler, without a warrant and without even having probable cause — only a reasonable suspicion, which by DHS rules and case law can include even ethnic indicators. Two-thirds of Americans live within this Constitution-Free Zone, especially the “liberal” residents of coastal cities in the “blue states.”Ostensibly, your decision to travel by airline implies your choice to abandon your rights to privacy in order to serve the cause of collective security. If you don’t like it, just travel by car or bus instead — but don’t venture within one hundred miles of the border or the coast, or you may be subject to warrantless search without probable cause by other TSA agents with the Border Patrol or the Immigration and Customs Enforcement divisions.
And none of this alone will be enough to end it.
Add in the politicians desperate to show the citizenry their public security credentials and the set is complete. Any movement to rid the United States of our failed security strategy must come head to head with these vested interests. Sadly, as with so much else, it is unlikely that those with the power to change this strategy will find the concerns of enraged citizens more important than the concerns of these interests.
Consider who pays the costs placed upon us by the TSA. The most important members of the federal government fly federal air or get to skip through TSA security checks when they must take commercial flights. Private jet passengers (including the many congressmen whom corporations are eager to court) are exempt from TSA oversight, despite the threat posed by a terrorist hijacking of private aircraft. TSA screenings serve as a class marker, separating those with the power to preserve their dignity and liberty from those who (in the words of Glenn Greenwald) must accept “in the name of Fear that [they] must suffer indignities, humiliations and always-increasing loss of liberties at the hands of unchallengeable functionaries of the state.”