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
    Richard Kulawiec, 25 Nov 2010 @ 3:52am

    The myopic focus on airplanes...

    ...(and as Big Sis has threatened, trains, and other means of transportation) is incredibly, off-the-scale stupid.

    Some of the things that terrorists have demonstrated are superior intelligence, strategic insight, and ingenuity -- all qualities that are lacking in the TSA et.al. because (a) they hire people with inferior minds and (b) they enforce regimented thinking, hobbling those inferior minds further. The end result is an agency whose aggregate intellectual ability is constrained by the least among them. They are absolutely no match for any terrorist worth the label.

    Which is why, when the next attack comes, it will be unexpected. It will either completely evade all this expensive and offensive security theater, or it will exploit it. (As many have pointed out, building a passenger-choked security checkpoint is equivalent to building a target.) It will likely be massive, and absent some plain old blind dumb luck, it will probably be successful. We could spend 10X, 100X as much defending against it and we would still be (nearly) guaranteed to fail.

    That's the reality that a lot of lesser individuals just can't accept: they want a risk-free world and foolishly believe that if they spend enough, endure enough, give up enough, they can get it. Without realizing it, they have become the terrorists' allies and patsies: they now embody the very fear that was the goal of past attacks. They are providing terrorists with continuing ROI -- no doubt much to the satisfaction and amusement of our adversaries, who have gotten far more out of their inconsequential attacks than even they could have hoped for.

    (Yes, inconsequential. Over the past decade, 270 Americans/year have died as a result of terrorists attacks, most of them on 9/11/2001. 70,000 Americans a year have died due to diseases contracted during (unrelated) hospital stays. Nearly half a million a year have died due to diseases, principally heart disease, linked directly to tobacco consumption. And so on. In the big picture, deaths due to terrorism are completely negligible.)

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