Bruce Schneier on TSA Absurdity and the Need for Resilience

Bruce Schneier, my security guru, thinks that the President should confront the American people with the hard truth: Onerous new security regimes in our civilian aviation system won't protect us. What will protect us is our own resilience. I had an e-mail exchange with Bruce yesterday, and here is an edited transcript:

Jeffrey Goldberg: Do you think that we are moving toward the Israelification of American airport security?

Bruce Schneier: I don't think it's possible.  The Israelis rely on a system of individual attention -- interviews, background checks, and so on -- that simply can't be replicated on the scale required for America.  If anything, we're moving in the opposite direction: layers of annoying, time consuming, ineffectual, static -- but automatic and scalable -- security systems.  Although it seems that we're finally hitting the limit as to what the American business travel will put up with, and no security measure will survive wholesale rejection by the airlines' most profitable customers.

Goldberg: But what will happen if there is a successful attack of the type we almost saw in the skies above Detroit? Does air travel survive?


Schneier: Probably.  Air travel survived decades of terrorism, including attacks which resulted in the deaths of everyone on the plane.  It survived 9/11.  It'll survive the next successful attack.  The only real worry is that we'll scare ourselves into making air travel so onerous that we won't fly anymore.  We won't be any safer -- more people will die in car crashes resulting from the increase in automobile travel, and terrorists will simply switch to one of the millions of other targets -- and we won't even feel any safer.  It's frustrating; terrorism is rare and largely ineffectual, yet we regularly magnify the effects of both their successes and failures by terrorizing ourselves.

Goldberg: If you were Janet Napolitano, what would you do today?

Schneier: It's a hard question, because she has to both protect the administration politically and protect Americans physically.  Politically, she needs to *do something*.  When people are scared, they need something done that will make them feel safe, even if it doesn't truly make them safer. Politicians naturally want to do something in response to crisis, even if that something doesn't make any sense. But unfortunately for politicians, the security measures that work are largely invisible. Such measures include enhancing the intelligence-gathering abilities of the secret services, hiring cultural experts and Arabic translators, building bridges with Islamic communities both nationally and internationally, funding police capabilities -- both investigative arms to prevent terrorist attacks, and emergency communications systems for after attacks occur -- and arresting terrorist plotters without media fanfare. They do not include expansive new police or spying laws, or security theater measures that directly target the most recent tactic or target.  I guess the real answer is that I don't want Janet Napolitano's job: I would want to do the right thing even if it wasn't the politically right thing.

Goldberg: Do you think it's only a matter of time before an airplane is blown up, or is this something that is still avoidable?

Schneier: The fact that we even ask this question illustrates something fundamentally wrong with how our society deals with risk.  Of course 100% security is impossible; it has always been impossible and always will be.  We'll never get the murder, burglary, or terrorism rate down to zero; 42,000 people will die each year in car crashes in the U.S. for the foreseeable future; life itself will always include risk.  But that's okay.  Despite fearful rhetoric to the contrary, terrorism is not a transcendent threat. A terrorist attack cannot possibly destroy our country's way of life; it's only our reaction to that attack that can do that kind of damage.

I want President Obama to get on national television and project indomitability. I want him to dial back the hyperbole, and remind us that our society can't be terrorized. I want him to roll back all the fear-based post-9/11 security measures.  We'd do much better by leveraging the inherent strengths of our modern democracies and the natural advantages we have over the terrorists: our adaptability and survivability, our international network of laws and law enforcement, and the freedoms and liberties that make our society so enviable. The way we live is open enough to make terrorists rare; we are observant enough to prevent most of the terrorist plots that exist, and indomitable enough to survive the even fewer terrorist plots that actually succeed. We don't need to pretend otherwise.

Presented by

Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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