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, 30 Nov 2010 @ 3:26am

    Re: Re: 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?

    NO mike that is exactly what you did say.

    I will post it again. so you can read it and tell us how you did not say what you said ?

    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.

    I know about reading comprehension, but it appears your writing comprehension leave alot to be desired.

    For one the way you write, give you some form of escape route.

    That means you write in vague enough terms that you can interpret your statement in many ways. With the main way to indicate your bias's.

    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.

    1) "The entire setup is basedon the idea that you can have 'perfect security'."

    No Mike for a start that is not true, it is on adequate and effective security. (first false statement).
    Perfect security can be achieved, but it is not the goal of the TSA to achieve perfection. It is no ones goals or "idea's" that their system has to be perfect.

    How do you guage, measure or determine perfection ? No group, company, government body, military force work on the basis of "perfection".

    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.

    What you are also saying, is that perfection is not possible, you say "if you wanted perfect security, the ONLY WAY IS NOT TO FLY".

    So how come you can state that the ONLY way to achieve what you think the TSA is trying to achieve is not to fly.

    Which is another way of saying, its impossible (according to mike) to achieve perfect security.. THEREFORE to achieve the goal of perfection your only option is not to fly..

    Which is say, in your special way, that they might not even bother trying because even if they do try, there is no way for them to succeed, therefore the only alternative is not not even try (ie, not fly at all, ever).

    There is no natural end result of trying to acheive perfection, perfection does not have an end, (for one).

    BTW: I wonder if you can point us to a source where it is stated tha the TSA is set up entirely based on the ideal of perfect security..

    Or is that just something you made up ??

    In fact show me ANY group that has a goal of achieving perfect ANYTHING ??

    IF you cannot provide that information can I assume you just made it up ?

    Therefore you make up a random statement, and base your entire rant upon that incorrect assumption..

    Sleep well at night ?

    I guess, you are betting that there is enough gullable people who will think you are talking from real information and from a real source.. and not just a product of your imagination.

    P.S.
    I just LOVE the DCMA takedown web page that advertises here on techdirt, helping to create those takedowns you hate so much.

    But I note as much as you hate DCMA and their takedown system, you are very happy to take some CASH for the advertising their services.

    Do you have a deal with them ? You get people to post inflamatory stuff, and DCMA takedown.com throws you are few buck if they get the job.

    Then you can complain about those nasty DCMA guys here ?

    Double standards, are a bitch.. but money talks right :)

    (im with you mike, we know how it really is ).. gotta get that cash..

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