CBS news magazine show “60 Minutes” has an in-depth feature on TSA security measures and whether all of these measures are making us safer or are merely show — “security theater,” as TSA critic Bruce Schneier calls it. Give credit to Leslie Stahl for producing a fairly balanced segment, which isn’t what you usually get with such heavily edited television slots which themselves tend to place a lot more emphasis on “theater” than facts.
Stahl, however, asks the now-trite question: “There’s been a lot of criticism about people who clearly are not terrorists. The 90-year-old little old lady. …My mother, in fact…was patted down, and pulled aside. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s not common sense,” Stahl remarks.
I wonder when Leslie Stahl became an expert at eyeballing other human beings and immediately grasping their inner motives. With those kind of skills at her disposal, she should be up for DHS Secretary, not Governor Napolitano.
And yet … I am suspicious that Stahl’s model of eyeball security is as good as she claims. What tactics does she use to determine which individuals are “clearly not terrorists?” I wonder if she would pick out the ever-younger women, mere girls, hiding explosive devices within their robes in the Middle East. Like little old ladies, there was a time when such young girls would have been dubbed “clearly not terrorists” (CNT).
Or by clearly targeting her terrorists, does she zero in on Muslims? Arabs? Egyptians or Somalis? What about the increasing number of British citizens who have joined the Islamist radicals seeking to advance Sharia law and roll back the troubling egalitarianism of democratic societies? What about fair-skinned Americans who help al Qaeda spread its propaganda and recruit Westerners in order to manipulate the popular belief of folks like Stahl who claim to be able to spot, with a quick gander, who is clearly a terrorist and who is clearly not?
Again, to Stahl’s credit, she allows the TSA’s Kip Hawley to respond, intelligently, to her suggestion that she might have the paranormal skills to spot CNTs: “You can’t say to al Qaeda, ‘If you give us somebody who looks like they’re 90 years old or nine months old, you’re going to get a free pass.’ Because I guarantee you, they are watching. They notice it. And that’s where they’ll come,” Hawley warns.
The 60 Minutes segment also gives quite a bit of time to Bruce Schneier and his theory of Security Theater. A brilliant coinage, “security theater” refers to measures that may look like something is being done but that have very little impact at all. It’s all for show.
The only problem is that Schneier takes his theory too far, at least in this interview. He seems to allow no room for the argument that some of these measures, while hardly foolproof, have any value whatsoever, even in terms of one layer of deterrence in the multi-layered security model put into place by DHS.
Stahl asks: What then should we do, give up? Schneier responds, correctly, that the most effective security measures must take place before the airport really comes into play — intelligence and investigative work.
Again, Hawley comes back with a rational answer: We need both.
Of course, the intelligence and investigative work to which Schneier refers opens up an entirely different can of worms, also for which DHS receives quite a bit of criticism. And, again, much of it legitimate. Which is the problem.
In an open and democratic society, the public is only willing to put up with a certain amount of intrusion into its personal life and personal freedoms. Quite frankly, even a totalitarian government could not stop a group of terrorists determined to kill others and willing to take their own lives in the process. No government official, however, is going to say this.
What can be said, and Schneier deserves credit for saying it along with a host of other security experts, is that the U.S. homeland security model must move much further towards a model of resiliency. That is, we must implement measures that mitigate the damage of an attack, so that we can recover with as little damage and loss of life as possible.
Does that mean that we should stop efforts to prevent an attack? Of course not. But we are fools if we believe that all of the measures combined can stop every possible means of attack. There are simply too many ways to go about it, ways we haven’t even thought of yet. We must work towards smart prevention efforts, including ongoing screening measures as well as intelligence work, but we must do more, much more, on the resiliency front.
Unfortunately, resiliency doesn’t appeal as much to politicians who wish to go back to their districts and boast of the measures they have taken to ensure that 9/11 “never happens again.” Congress is infatuated with measures it likes to proclaim to be foolproof. The pols use politically resonant terms like “100 percent” security.
The most visible and egregious example is last year’s legislation passed by Congress mandating Homeland Security to scan 100 percent of all cargo coming into the country. Every security expert breathing will tell you this is impractical, if not impossible. And it drains precious resources from a layered and comprehensive security strategy to narrow, select and isolated vulnerabilities that may or may not some day be exploited by terrorists.
As impractical and falsely assuring as “100 percent scanning” may be, no politician wants to be the one to go back and say: Well we can’t guarantee that we can stop a determined psychopath from smuggling explosive devices into the country. We can scan every piece of cargo coming into the country (and cripple our economy and trade while we’re at it), but, you know, a terrorist can simply smuggle his components in the way drug cartels smuggle in their dope. Maybe hire some coyotes down near the Arizona border. Hide it in a hollowed part of an old pick-up truck. The options are endless.
So instead, they pass laws proclaiming that we will now scan 100 percent of all cargo. You can rest easy. We have acted.
Talk about security theater … but, damn, it makes for good politics.