Thursday, May 16, 2013

Security theater

One of the more dysfunctional responses to the 9/11 attacks in 2001 has been the various form of security theater that have grown up in addition to actually necessary precautions. Some are aggravating, some are just dumb.

One of my favorites is when a guard at the security line on an international flight takes your passport, looks at it seriously and then looks at you and asks, "Your last name?" Because, you know, a dangerous terrorist on a secret mission to do terrible harm to somebody would probably forget to memorize the name on his fake passport. If he was even using a fake one.

Some forms of security theater, though, can be dangerous. Joe Eskenazi gives an example from last month in Insecurity SF Weekly 05/01/2013, involving AT&T Park in San Francisco, which started a no-packpack rule after 9/11 that doesn't apply to suitcase-sized handbags:

This kind of "security" attains the rare two-fer of being both moronic and oxymoronic. And, alas, it's not a vestige of a bygone era. On Friday, April 19, thousands of people — perhaps even tens of thousands — massed outside AT&T Park. First pitch was already in the books, but the swelling crowd on Willie Mays Plaza was more tightly packed than a ballpark-bound N-Judah and growing larger and denser by the minute. Black-and-orange-clad fans spilled into the crosswalks and across the intersections. Lines blended into other lines; listless fans slowly perambulated around the plaza in a Möbius-shaped path.

It was a maniacally frustrating moment — and not merely because the throngs had been essentially standing still, cheek-to-jowl, for the better part of an hour and were now missing the game they'd paid to see. More substantively: In reaction to an attack directed at many thousands of people packed alarmingly tightly into the streets of Boston, AT&T Park security measures resulted in many thousands of people being packed alarmingly tightly into the streets of San Francisco.

"They created a perfect crowd scene for killing the maximum amount of people," reflects Ohio State professor John Mueller, co-author of Terror, Security, and Money. "It's basically absurd." But not uncommon — or unexpected. "This is so stupid. And it happens all the time," says security expert Bruce Schneier. "It's very standard: Something must be done.

"This is Something. Therefore, we must do it."
Eskenazi did some follow-up and found that it's standard practice at AT&T Park that when the crowd starts backing up seriously, the just cut back the security checks and let people in, which they eventually did that night. And he makes the sensible observation, "A system in which thousands of people are pushed into the streets and rendered soft targets, followed by the predictable abandonment of that system after it produces a backup, can hardly be described as effective — or even much of a system."

Romesh Ratnesar addresses the issues in As in Boston, Resilience Can Help the U.S. Defeat Terrorist Attacks Bloomberg Businessweek 04/18/2103 (print title, "The New Normal"):

The decline in terrorist activity stems from multiple factors, ranging from more restrictive immigration policies to vast improvements in intelligence gathering. In some ways, the U.S.’s counterterrorism system is a victim of its success: The absence of attacks has heightened Washington’s obsession with preventing another one at any cost. The U.S. has spent at least $640 billion on homeland security measures in the years since the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The inescapable logic of counterterrorism is that such vast expenditures are capable of defending the country against Sept. 11-style hijackings, but they can’t do much to prevent two relatively crude devices from producing nearly 200 casualties in Boston.

The U.S. has been successful in reducing the threat of terrorism, but it has wildly overspent in a futile attempt to achieve the goal of eliminating it. "After 9/11 we put our national security apparatus on steroids and decided that we were going to try to stop another attack from ever taking place," says Stephen Flynn, a professor of political science at Northeastern University, who has advised the government on homeland security issues. "But much less investment was made to increase our society’s ability to respond to such events."
He uses the word "resilience" to refer to the ability of government to respond effectively to terrorist attacks, as in properly trained and staffed first responders and police.

The United States paid a heavy price in numerous ways by responding to the 9/11 attacks by treating it as the occasion to become more militarily aggressive and declare a Long War against Terrorism. The focus really should have been on sensible saftety measures - like not allowing actual knives on planes - rather than on the military aggression that creates new enemies and new targets. An attack on the Al Qaeda concentrations in Afghanistan after 9/11 was a necessary part of the response. But an invasion of Iraq and a decade-plus of ongoing war in Afghanistan were not.

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