TSA's Failure Based On The Myth Of Perfect Security

from the it's-not-happening dept

As the complaints against the TSA ratchet up, various people are finally starting to point out why the whole concept of security theater is a farce. The entire setup is based on the idea that you can have "perfect security." But, if you wanted perfect security, the only way to do that is to not let anyone fly, ever. As James Fallows notes it doesn't make much sense to "spend limitlessly toward the impossible end of reducing the risk to zero." As he notes:
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.

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."
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.
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.

Filed Under: incentives, myths, privacy, security, terrorism, tsa
Companies: tsa


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  1. identicon
    darryl, 28 Nov 2010 @ 2:39pm

    Re: Re: Next time you post here, you need to post your full name, address, social security number and last three pay stub details. What's the big deal?

    And mike is proposing that if we cannot achieve 100% security, we might as well not even try at all.


    I proposed no such thing.



    The entire setup is based on the idea that you can have "perfect security." But, if you wanted perfect security, the only way to do that is to not let anyone fly, ever.

    Mike it looks like that is exactly what you proposed in that statement.

    READ what you said.

    I said there is an expectation of perfect security, and as that cannot be achieved your alternative is not "NOT FLY at all ever".

    Which is the same as saying if you cannot have 100% security you might not have anything at all (ie not fly).. (or try at all)..


    SO Mike please explain, how you can make the statement that you did not propose that at all, but it is clear you did.

    IN your OWN FREAKING WORDS.

    Maybe im the only person who reads what you write, including you mike !


    once, thing your really good at standing by your statements :)


    Heh. All in the eye of the beholder, and my reputation does quite well among those who matter.


    Also not true, because your reputation does not do quite so well for me !!!..

    clearly, your reputation does not stand you very well amoung those that matter in patent and copyright reform.

    and certainly not in academics or economics, or social or business reputation.

    But I really dont care about how well you are self agrandising. Just what you say, and what you intend with what you say, and the real underlying truth and facts that deny or support your arguments.

    You're reputation is only as good as you show it to be, and you do not display qualities that I would count as a positive reputation.. Im sure you have a reputation for something, I know what that is, but its not a good rep...

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