Airline Security and Proportional Response

I am flying to London this coming week on business. I have no idea if I will be able to use my laptop, emerge from my seat during the last hour of flight or be required to wear my underwear inside-out during the security check-in. Do I believe that any of these measures will contribute to passenger safety? No.

After the recent foiled airline bomb incident one thing seems clear; we are constantly retrofitting our security measures to defend ourselves against the last attack. Often these measures seem like what Bruce Schneier in a great CNN article calls “Security Theater“.<br

“Security theater” refers to security measures that make people feel more secure without doing anything to actually improve their security.

What seems equally true is that the media has ginned up a national hysteria over the incident that leads much of the senseless government action. In the wake of blanket coverage officials are pushed to show a proportional response… the more hand-wringing the more actions need to be taken regardless of whether those actions have any salutary effect. Most of the criticism that I have seen has been leveled at politicians lacking leadership. <br
Schneier concludes

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.

Amen. And yet it isn’t people around me that I see freaking out. It is the media, followed in lock-step by politicians. One has to wonder if the United States of 2010 is capable of the kind of leadership Schneier is asking for. Are our politicians capable of leading when they can obtain personal advantage in either fear-mongering or finger-pointing? Is the media capable of leading without the histrionics that sell ratings?<br

I am flying to London this coming week but I won’t feel any more secure – just a lot more inconvenienced.

  • Rocky

    The media loves fear, because fear drives ratings.

    The more people are afraid, the more they will stay tuned to CNN. News thrives on the bad.

    If people feel safe, there’s no reason to tune in. As a result everything is the biggest threat ever, never mind the realities of all the things that are bigger threats. Heck, you’re probably more likely to get run over by the CNN bus than you are to die in an aviation-related accident.

    Real, everyday threats are boring. Obesity, car accidents, the regular flu.

    Even the choice of “experts” and woman-in-the-airport interviews are skewed. The experts are usually people who make their money selling fear and “security” services. You’re more likely to hear an airport interview with grandma who flies once a year saying she’ll fly naked to be safe than a business traveler who flies dozens of trips talking about the economic impact to her of hours wasted on “security” theater.

  • Ken McNamara

    When I was watching the responses to this last attack – it occurred to me that the best response was NOT that the system worked, or didn’t work, but simply that someday we’re going to lose another planeload of people to a terrorist bomb.

    And that when it happens, the people who supported and promoted the act would live to regret it. Then again, that would presume the WILL to follow thru on that threat.

    Instead, as you aptly point out, we get a circus of self-serving hand wringing, finger-pointing, a lawyered-up terrorist, and hours of coverage about full-body scanners. Even better we spill our guts about what we knew and when we knew it – to give the enemy their post-game analysis so they can kaizen their process.

  • Alex Bowles

    Here’s a great bit of commentary about the efficient handling of terrorism in a country that contends with it on a truly constant and regular basis:

    Israelis, unlike Canadians and Americans, don’t take s— from anybody. When the security agency in Israel (the ISA) started to tighten security and we had to wait in line for — not for hours — but 30 or 40 minutes, all hell broke loose here. We said, ‘We’re not going to do this. You’re going to find a way that will take care of security without touching the efficiency of the airport.

    That, in a nutshell is “Israelification” – a system that protects life and limb without annoying you to death.

    The best part of all this is that it actually works.

  • Stormy

    Ken, if we lose another plane load to terrorists, everyone will say “see we needed to do more.”

    I don’t think all the extra security is doing us any good, but I think it’s like car seats.

    Both my SO and I agree that the booster seat doesn’t make our 3 year old any safer, but my SO thinks we should make the 3yo sit in it all the time because if anything ever happens, we’d forever think it was our fault for not making him sit in it.

    Most of the country needs to feel like we are doing something to make air travel safer even if it is not making us any safer.

    Those of us that travel the most realize that the pain of the extra security far outweighs the benefit of feeling like we are doing something.

  • Michael R. Bernstein

    “Both my SO and I agree that the booster seat doesn’t make our 3 year old any safer”

    Really? I hadn’t heard of any studies to that effect. Do you have a citation?

  • Alex Tolley

    Security policy as done by the TSA is one of those social policies that is not tested for real efficacy. It’s like the FDA allowing snake oil to be sold.

    As a culture, we seem to have allowed form to have replaced content, and so we end up with kabuki.

    If the Israelis really have better security than we do, we would be advised to adopt their model and start from there.

  • Ben

    The whole approach is completely absurd. TSA has to be successful 100% of the time, while the opposition only needs to succeed once. These are not favorable odds, and underscore that asymmetric threat faced. As has already been well-hashed, the TSA approach is purely ridiculous.

    The media-fed hype-machine makes it worse, fanning the flames of fear. If anybody should be labeled as terrorists, it should be the so-called “journalists” who systematically use terror to sell advertising.

    Then you have the politicians who falsely believe that doing something is better than doing nothing. This fallacy ends up creating more problems than it solves, and is of course amplified by the media hype-machine.

    Much needs to change, but I fear that nothing will change any time soon. It would require people to act responsibly, rationally, and intelligently.

  • Ken McNamara

    Stormy –

    IMHO – it’s not ‘if’ but when.

    As Ben notes, the terrorists only have to succeed once.

    Now that we’ve decided to treat them as criminals they could clog our court calendars and stay in the news indefinitely.

  • marina

    Joshua, if your flying to Heathrow you will be a tad more than inconvenienced. In fact you will be flying into the 7th ring of hell.

  • The Kid

    Very simple solution to the airport security issue. I know that not all Muslims are terrorists but regrettably up till now, the majority if not all of the terrorists have been Muslim. Come on, the rest of you religious fanatics, you’re not trying hard enough! Now,I don’t know a lot about the religion but Muslims seem to have a real thing about cleanliness both in life but especially before going to Allah and getting their 70 virgins. So you know it’s scrub scrub scrub a dub before they get on a plane to do whatever. Simple solution. At each boarding gate have a pig.You could even put them in a little airport security uniform. Pigs are clean of course, for us, but for Muslims any contact with them makes a faithful one unclean . Soooo, before anyone can board a flight you have to kiss the pig.
    Think of it. No strip searches for 80 year old Scandanavian grandmothers. No metal detectors in babies diapers, just kiss the pig. Small thing for us but no Muslim would consider bringing down a flight and going to Allah with pork on their lips. If they didn’t want to kiss the pig before getting on a TransAtlantic flight from Holland to Detroit Michigan they could always take the bus.Now I know what you’re thinking but contrary to popular opinion pigs very very clean animals. And they’re smart Very smart and easy to train. I’ve heard that they even considered training them to be politicians but there’s some messes even pigs won’t get involved with. They’re born with great noses. When they weren’t being employed at security checkpoints perhaps those suitably trained porkers could sniff out drugs or even be used to sniff out explosives in some Muslim wannabe’s undies. And think of the gratitude of the nations pig farmers, already hurting from that whole ugly Pig Flu thing they could have a brand new reason for a new crop. Yep, no full body scanner ala the Arnold Swatrzenager movie, no invasive strip searches for those air terminals that can’t afford the new technology , just kiss the pig. Pucker up for pork
    “This little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed home , this little piggy works at Heathrow…….”

  • Curmudgeon

    Hey, Kid, better make sure PETA doesn’t track you down.

  • Joshua-Michéle Ross

    So – despite my own hand-wringing I actually just arrived in London with zero added hassle. I am not sure how that happened. Although I particularly appreciated Marina’s supportive “7th Ring of Hell” comment re: Heathrow, that can be chalked up to architecture…

  • Mike Perry

    I passed through Israeli security on an El Al flight from Athens to Tel Avi. A German guy in front of me spent some 15 minutes in the booth being interviewed and inspected, so I thought, “Oh, no, beard, backpack, traveling alone, probably a one-way ticket. I fit the same profile as him. I’ll go through the same lengthy shakedown.”

    My turn came. The Israeli security guy took a quick glance at my passport photo to make sure it matched me and then said, “Enjoy your stay in Israel Mr. Perry.” I was in and out in 15 seconds. No emptying of pockets for x-rays. No removing shoes They didn’t even c are that I was carrying a double-bladed electrician’s knife.

    Israel wastes little time looking for ‘weapons’ like nail clippers and aftershave lotion. Any terrorist who isn’t a complete dolt can evade those checks. Instead, they focus on the passenger himself, his profile and behavior. And their track record says that what they’re doing works far better than our dim-witted ‘make everyone miserable’ approach.

    Security theater is an apt term for what our security does. It makes some people feel that “something is being done,” but it accomplishes almost nothing.

  • Michael Strauss

    Being a frequent traveler I can definitely confirm the check-in process to be longer and the “security theater” to incense me. On my way back from Canada last weekend, I was not even allowed to bring a headset case, camera case, or similar within my carry-on luggage which was, due to safety regulations, required to not be a briefcase or backpack but a small pocket book, laptop bag or similar. I guess this opens up a complete new fashion line for see-through bags. At this time, running out of options, I traveled with a recyclable supermarket bag.
    However, being scanned quite in detail I faced the airlines’ “contribution to patriotism” first-hand by not being charged for any of my 5 bags on my way back from Canada.

  • Security theatre, or wipe warmer? Seems to be just a coverup to the overall problem.