Our irrational airport security

Bruce Schneier has a review of Harvey Molotch’s book Against Security: How We Go Wrong at Airports, Subways, and Other Sites of Ambiguous Danger in the latest issue of Reason magazine. I think I’ll pick up the book, though I haven’t yet – but I did want to share a couple thoughts prompted by the review about why that annoying security line at the airport just doesn’t make sense.

1. Our current security measures focus on specific places and specific types of threats – for example, we spent an awful lot of manpower trying to protect airplanes and airports, and also target specific types of threats (knives, say). But we also leave a tremendous number of other possible targets unprotected – after all, if we tried to offer every potential terrorist target in America the same kind of protection we offer airports, every person in America would be a security officer. So, then, what is the effect of our airport security? In essence, we’re spending a tremendous amount of money just to force terrorists to switch to other targets, or to use other tactics – and that just doesn’t make sense. (This is assuming airport security would actually stop a terrorist, itself a highly debatable point.)

So what should we do? Spend that money on investigation and intelligence instead. You get a lot more bang for your buck paying a mole to infiltrate a terrorist cell and find out what they’re really up to than you do paying for 100 TSA agents. And you don’t have to dehumanize every innocent airport traveler either.

2. Our fears of terrorism are wildly out of proportion to the actual threat – and sometimes we react in ways that makes us less safe. Many people have pointed out that the giant security lines that form on busy travel days have a higher density of people than any airplane would. Molotch points out that more people have died in car crashes since 9/11 because they didn’t want to fly (either because they were scared, or to avoid the TSA) than died in the terrorist attacks. So perhaps we should relax a bit. To quote the review,

In addition to urging people to be more reasonable about potential threats, Molotch makes a strong case for optimism and kindness. Treating every air traveler as a potential terrorist and every Hurricane Katrina refugee as a potential looter is dehumanizing. Molotch argues that we do better as a society when we trust and respect people more. Yes, the occasional bad thing will happen, but 1) it happens less often, and is less damaging, than you probably think, and 2) individuals naturally organize to defend each other. This is what happened during the evacuation of the Twin Towers and in the aftermath of Katrina before official security took over. Those in charge often do a worse job than the common people on the ground.

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