TSA's Failure Based On The Myth Of Perfect Security
from the it's-not-happening dept
Every society accepts some risks as part of its overall social contract. People die when they drive cars, they die when they drink, they die from crime, they die when planes go down, they die on bikes. The only way to eliminate the risks would be to eliminate the activities -- no driving, no drinking, no weapons of any kind, no planes or bikes. While risk/reward tradeoffs vary between, say, Sweden and China, no nation accepts the total social controls that would be necessary to eliminate risk altogether.Along those lines, the Unqualified Offerings blog (via Julian Sanchez) does a nice job explaining how the incentives line up to create this ridiculous situation. Basically, he notes that a terrorist attack on an airplane will happen. Some day. No matter what we do to try to prevent it. But once that happens, the response is going to be obvious: those who pushed hard for more ridiculous security theater that wasn't implemented will keep their jobs and retain power. Those who pushed for more reasonable solutions will be vilified.
Yet when it comes to dealing with terrorism, politicians know that they will not be judged on the basis of an "acceptable level of risk." They know that they can't even use that term when discussing the issue. ("Senator Flaccid thinks it's 'acceptable' for terrorists to blow up planes. On Election Day, show him that politicians who give in to terror are 'unacceptable' to us.") And they know for certain that if -- when -- a plane blows up with Americans aboard, then cable news, their political opponents, Congressional investigators, and everyone else will hunt down any person who ever said that any security measure should be relaxed.
This is the political tragedy of "security theater."
100% success is usually impossible in the real world. Given that eventually, one way or another, a terrorist will almost certainly take down a plane, the only question that management has to ask itself is what position they want to be in when that happens. And that answer is simple: Safe in their jobs, and poised to inherit a bigger budget.And that's why we get security theater.
The goal isn't so much actual safety. After all, as Jim Harper notes, if you look at the actual "risk" of a terrorist attack on an airplane today, it's pretty close to zero. But the whole process is built around trying to bring it all the way to zero, which is an impossibility, but leads to ridiculous extremes. And, he notes, this is exactly how the terrorists planned it:
This is apostasy in Washington -- where the political imperative is zero risk. But risk is a reality of life. We take risks when we drive, when we walk across a street and when we go to the fridge for that two-day-old slice of pizza.
This illusory quest for zero risk helps terrorism achieve its goals. As news of "Operation Hemorrhage" -- smaller, low-cost attacks aimed to disrupt commerce and stoke fears -- demonstrates clearly, terrorism works by inducing target states to overreact. That's the only mode terrorists have for affecting major powers like the United States.
We've been nothing if not a patsy to their strategy. The element of surprise, central to terrorism, forces us to defend everything against every mode of attack -- a logic that naturally bleeds us.