Back to the Issues: More Security Theater


My colleague Jeff Goldberg has cornered the market in descriptions of the TSA's newly intimate pat-down procedures. A reader from a high-tech manufacturing company writes in to describe his family's introduction to the new security regime:

x22_pump_torso.jpg>>Damned if my son didn't run into the new pat down procedure yesterday. He's a type 1 diabetic and has an insulin pump so they forced him to go through a very uncomfortable groping. Apparently this is a problem for pump users. I suggested he take his pump off (it's not essential that he have it on every minute) and run it through x-ray but he's still left with a needle and tube in his abdomen which I expect would also cause problems.<<

That is a stock photo, not the reader's son. While I'm at it, another reader offers a hypothesis for the terrorists' obsession with air travel as a target -- rather than, say, unleashing a lot of gunmen at a shopping mall. From attackers' point of view, it has advantages even beyond the costs and distortions it has imposed by evoking responses like the TSA. An earlier reader had said that airplanes were a "sexy" target. This reader says:

>>I'm not sure it's "sexy" but when you attack an airplane mid-flight, that's the only story. Everyone dies, it's real bad, and there's a lot of focus on the terrorists responsible. If you attack a train, or a subway, or a crowded area, there are survivors, and there are probably heroes. People who dragged people from the carnage. Responding firefighters. People who embody the "American spirit" we keep hearing about. For instance, the only real movie to come out of September 11 was United 93, which was about the people who fought back. In any case, if there are survivors, they take up a lot of the media coverage, and dilute the terrorists objectives (get people scared). From their perspective, attacking airplanes is clean; other groups of people in confined spaces is significantly messier.

By focusing on airliners, maybe the TSA isn't completely on the wrong track after all.

(Needless to say, I'm flying out of DCA tomorrow for the first time in a while, and I'm sure whatever security theater is in place this week--the TSA-approved purple "w" on my boarding pass, the guy who takes a long, hard look at my license with a blue light and a magnifying glass--will make me change my opinion.<<

Worth reading while you're preparing to be patted down: Charles C. Mann's prescient Atlantic article on "Homeland Insecurity" back in 2002. It introduced Bruce Schneier, coiner of the term "security theater," and presaged much of what has happened in the name of security since then. The subtitle -- or "dek," in journalese terms -- sums up the idea, as good deks should: "A top expert says America's approach to protecting itself will only make matters worse. Forget 'foolproof' technology--we need systems designed to fail smartly." Words for the ages. [FYI, for Second Life/Virtually Speaking conversation between me and Schneier: iTunes link here, program 62, and Blogtalkradio link here.]

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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