Is aviation security mostly for show? (CNN) -- Last week's attempted terror attack on an airplane heading from Amsterdam to Detroit has given rise to a bunch of familiar questions.
How did the explosives get past security screening? What steps could be taken to avert similar attacks? Why wasn't there an air marshal on the flight? And, predictably, government officials have rushed to institutenew safety measures to close holes in the system exposed by the incident.
Reviewing what happened is important, but a lot of the discussion is off-base, a reflection of the fundamentally wrong conception most people have of terrorism and how to combat it. Terrorism is rare, far rarer than many people think. It's rare because very few people want to commit acts of terrorism, and executing aterrorist plot is much harder than television makes it appear.
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 againstmovie-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.
Stories are what we fear. It's not just hypothetical stories -- terrorists flying planes into buildings, terrorists withexplosives strapped to their legs or with bombs in their shoes, and terrorists with guns and bombs waging a co-ordinated attack against a city are even scarier movie-plot threats because they actually happened.
"Security theater" refers to security measures that make people feel more secure without doing anything to actually improve their security. An example: the photo ID checks that have sprungup in office buildings. No one has ever explained why verifying that someone has a photo ID provides any actual security, but it looks like security to have a uniformed guard-for-hire looking at ID cards.
Airport-security examples include the National Guard troops stationed at U.S. airports in the months after 9/11 -- their guns had no bullets. The U.S. color-coded system of threat levels, thepervasive harassment of photographers, and the metal detectors that are increasingly common in hotels and office buildings since the Mumbai terrorist attacks, are additional examples.
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 nationalsignificance, 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'simpossible 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...
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