Security theater


We all know that the world changed on September 11, 2001. Obviously the events of that day were tragic, and it seemed that America (and to a great extent, Canada too) completely shut down for a week just to recover. Gradually things got restarted and back approaching normal, but in the months and years following, a lot of things never returned to what was “normal” before, and in certain cases the new normal is a lot different from what was normal before.

The thing that everyone can point to as being very different is security, particularly for air travel. Before 9/11, everyone had to go through security before flying, which included being interviewed at customs as well as going through a metal detector, but that was about it. Now, we all have to take our shoes and belts off, throw away bottles of water and contact lens solution, and either consent to being groped by a TSA agent or go through a scanner that can take naked pictures of us. To quote Timon from The Lion King: “… and everyone’s okay with this?”

The site of the World Trade Center is now a memorial, but the amount of security required to get into it is unreal. It’s not just a public park that anyone can walk around. To get tickets, you need to provide your name, address, and phone number, and everyone over 13 needs picture ID that can be asked for at any time. During the cold war we used to laugh at Soviet society, where anyone could be asked for their papers at any time, and thrown into jail if they didn’t have them. Aren’t we lucky not to live in a place like that? Well, now we do.

This has bothered me for years, but why aren’t more people all up in arms about all of this? The belief seems to be that the additional security measures are inconvenient, but they keep us safe so we should just put up with them. But are we really safer now than before? The TSA themselves listed their Top 10 good catches of 2011, which mostly consisted of people trying to get weird things through security or things that would have been found by a metal detector anyway. No terrorists made the list. Early this year there was the cupcake incident, where a passenger had a cupcake confiscated because it could have been made of some kind of explosive gel.

The whole point of the TSA seems to be to protect the American public from possible-but-extremely-unlikely scenarios. Security expert Bruce Schneier calls it “security theater” – it gives all the appearance of providing security, but actually does nothing. You can’t bring more than 100 mL of liquids onto the plane in case they’re liquid explosives. So 100 mL of liquid explosive is not dangerous? And two separate 100 mL bottles (which are allowed) are not dangerous but one 200 mL bottle is? You can’t bring a two-inch-long nail file (security officers snapped one off of our nail clippers) because it could be a weapon, but you’re allowed a six-inch sharpened pencil. Then once you’re in the air, they bring you your dinner and give everyone a metal knife and fork.

The TSA is supposed to be protecting American citizens from terrorists. But how many terrorist plots have they actually foiled? The total number of people killed in the USA in terrorist attacks since 9/11 is 16. Sixteen people in eleven years. This means that either all of the law enforcement agencies all over the US have been extremely effective in preventing terrorist attacks, or there just aren’t that many. Certainly not enough to warrant the $8 billion per year that the US government spends on the TSA. While I acknowledge that it’s possible that a number of terrorist attacks have been foiled and they just haven’t made that information public, I suspect the actual number of terrorists stopped from blowing up / hijacking a plane is zero.

Back to the World Trade Center memorial, how likely is it that terrorists would target it for an attack? Obviously it’s a very meaningful place for Americans so there’s that factor, but a smart terrorist would bypass that entirely and just attack a subway station (zero security on subways, not even metal detectors) or a mall or, like in Tom Clancy’s book The Sum of All Fears, a jam-packed football stadium.

If terrorists want to attack the US again, they wouldn’t be able to do the exact same thing as they’ve done in the past, since we’ve got those bases covered. But if they were not idiots and really determined to find a way, the security procedures put in place by the TSA are unlikely to be able to stop them. But it’s possible that not a single member of Al-Qaeda has set foot in the US in eleven years. In reality, what they’re likely doing is laughing at all the silly hoops that they’ve caused Americans to have to jump through.

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