SECURITY THEATRE

Posted in Rants on January 11th, 2010 by Ed

(Preface: Being an Arizona Cardinals fan has ups and downs, to say the least, and one of the primary drawbacks is that their games often leave one emotionally and physically drained. Just watching these guys is exhausting. 31-10 is a safe lead for 99.9% of the football teams in the world, but not us. The Cardinals relish in finding ways to make everything far more gut-wrenching than necessary, and Sunday's 51-45 gunfight with Green Bay was as ridiculous and improbable as they come. I had to struggle to achieve any kind of coherence with this short piece. My brain is not working. If you like to gamble on sports – I do not, but to each his own – I have free advice for the Arizona-New Orleans game: take the "over.")

Two weeks ago in the wake of the failed Underpants Bomber I noted that with even the most strident efforts to secure commercial air travel the bomber will always get through. Matthew L. forwarded me a recent Wall Street Journal piece suggesting that calculated fatalism about terrorism in the air isn't so outlandish an idea. The author makes a number of obvious but often overlooked points about the diminutive risk posed by terrorist attacks (compared, for example, to dying in an auto accident or being murdered in the U.S.). I'm most intrigued, however, by his use of the apt phrase "security theater." The pointless efforts to reassure panicky idiots that "increased security measures are being implemented" is dishonest at best and achieves nothing except making everyone more miserable and whittling away at what little remains of our privacy in a modern airport.

It would have been silly to expect any kind of calm, level-headed response to the Underpants Bomber. We got the predictable foaming-at-mouth "Liberals put America in danger!" reaction from the Teabagging crowd followed by the inevitable "We have to look like we're tough! Do something!" response from the White House and Congress. Even if we recognize the fact that most anti-terrorism measures in airports are strictly for show, the reaction to this latest incident still stands out as mind-bogglingly stupid. Two examples illustrate the point.

First, on inbound international flights passengers are now required to spend the last hour before landing in their seats and without any "personal items" in their laps. Think about that for a second. We all have to spend the last hour of a 9 or 12 (or 18 or 20) hour flight sitting bolt-upright in an uncomfortable coach seat staring straight ahead and doing nothing. No reading, no iPod, nothing. In what possible hypothetical situation could this add any security whatsoever to international flights? I guess future Underpants Bombers will have a mere 9 hours to execute their plan on that Amsterdam-Detroit flight instead of 10. The cost in misery is substantial. The benefits aren't even plausible let alone realistic.

Second, two flights in the past week have received F-16 fighter jet escorts because of "unruly" passengers who were probably trying to, you know, read a magazine during the last hour of the flight. Most recently, an AirTran flight to San Francisco was escorted by two armed F-16s because…a drunk locked himself in the bathroom. OK, let's give The System the benefit of the doubt and assume they did not know he was just a harmless drunk. Implausible, but let's go ahead and accept that premise. What in the hell are two F-16s supposed to contribute to this situation? If the guy is in the bathroom mixing an Underpants Bomb is the F-16 supposed to fire a missile into the plane and blow it to bits before the terrorist can…ignite a bomb and blow the plane to bits? That'll learn 'em.

An F-16 burns 150 gallons of fuel to take off and ten gallons per minute thereafter. Combined with the other (astronomical) parts and labor costs involved in operating that kind of aircraft we might question the benefit of this policy. Either the Unruly Passenger is a harmless false alarm or it is a real terrorist who will or will not succeed in his plot irrespective of the presence of armed fighter escorts. Armed escorts could have been relevant on 9/11, but what are the odds of a cockpit incursion happening again? Since those events I think a pilot would fly the plane into the ground before allowing a hijacker to commandeer the aircraft and use it as a missile. So, like armies prepare themselves to fight the previous war, our Security Theater seems to be responding to the threat of terrorists from 2001.

We stopped improving airport security sometime in mid-2002. Everything since then has served only to waste money, waste time, and make everyone more miserable. It is a race we can't win, as security measures inevitably focus on past, not future, attacks. Soon we'll be subject to "Total Body Imaging" scanners to catch underpants bombers…and how long do you think it will take would-be bombers to figure out how to beat that? All it will do is make airport lines longer, make people feel more like cattle, and make the next would-be bomber swallow or "keester" a tube of explosives rather than sewing it into his underwear.

I feel safer already.