Friday, March 1, 2013

On Security Theater

Once, on our way back home from Boston, my family had to go through the ritualized humiliation of the airline security checkpoint. They X-rayed our luggage, and we took off our shoes, and I had to step into a booth which puffed air at me in order to sniff me up for chemicals. (I told the lady in uniform that I'd prefer dogs.) Then - O horror! - they found a water bottle in my daughter's backpack. They confiscated it, because H2O is now officially an explosive.

On our way to the gate, while riding a long escalator, I explained to Hannah that we had just experienced Security Theater. I defined that term as meaning the pretense of protection without the reality. Warming to my theme, I explained that a real terrorist could easily thwart security theater; but that the airport continues it, not in order to actually protect the people, but in order to tell the people that they are trying to do something. I said to Hannah that I am telling her this because I wish to raise her as a resilient child, able to recognize illusions in a world full of illusions.

Later, on the flight, I thought further about security theater. Even a civilian like me can tell that the crowded security checkpoint, jammed with shoeless people meekly waiting in line, is itself utterly insecure; a ripe target for a terrorist attack. If a jihadi, or a white supremacist, or some other evil cultist wanted to commit ritual massacre, why he need only bring a few grenades, and he could have his blood rite, and make a propaganda point, and maybe even escape with his miserable hide intact. So in security terms, the checkpoint is perverse.

But not entirely, I realized. For though people would die in that scenario, still the expensive airplane would remain undamaged. So security theater guards neither life nor liberty, but it does protect (airline) property.

In this respect security theater is like a fuse in an electrical circuit. Like the fusebox, the checkpoint is a weak point deliberately built into the system, designed to force rogue power to destroy cheap, easily-replaced components, rather than damage more expensive equipment.

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