Security Theater for Christmas, in Europe and DC

Last month postal authorities in Japan said that parcels bound for America and weighing more than a pound would have to go by sea rather than air, because of new U.S. security rules. Previous discussion here and here. A reader with relatives in Europe (Germany, I am guessing, from his name) reports that the policy has spread there too:

>>This madness has now reached Europe where my relatives get their Christmas packages [sent to America] returned because they weigh more than 1 pound.

Paranoia in this country is now destroying kids' Christmas. And, of course, no one is responsible and no money will be refunded. I cannot agree more with you: "the damage done by terrorism, always and everywhere, is not the destruction it causes directly but the reaction it provokes"<<

And a Congressional staff member in DC reports on the new bag-screening policy for the DC Metro system:

>>As you know, we in the metropolitan DC area are no strangers to pointless security theater (want to enter this federal building? First you must show a driver's license! Because Timothy McVeigh never had a driver's license!). But the new random bag checks on the Metro have got to set some sort of record for pointlessness....

Metro police will be conducting random bag searches at random stations on the Metro system. People who object to being searched will be permitted to turn around and leave the system. Presumably, they will then be free to enter any one of the other Metro stations that isn't conducting a random bag search that day.

There are seven--7!--Metro stations within about a 15 minute walk from Metro Center. If the presence of bag-checking police at Metro Center are sufficient to deter a would-be suicide bomber from entering the system, what is supposed to stop that same would-be bomber from walking to Farragut North, Farragut West, McPherson Square, Gallery Place, etc.?

Am I missing something here? Is there any way in which this isn't exactly like conducting random inspections at one door of a building and leaving the other doors unchecked? I think this program is dubious on 4th Amendment grounds as it is, but even if it wasn't, surely it fails the most basic post-9/11 security test, which is 'would this program fail to stop even the dumbest terrorist alive? If so, abandon it.'

I don't know how much money WMATA [the Metro agency] is spending on this security theater, but it seems like buying a new bomb-sniffing dog, or training a handful of officers in behavioral profiling and putting them in plainclothes would go a lot further.<<

Although in my real life I am a cat loyalist, I am a big fan of dogs for security-screening work. In my encounters with the dreaded cheese beagles at the Beijing airport, I learned how effectively "discriminating" they can be. They don't find everything, but they practice a kind of "smart profiling" that's harder for human screeners to do, and that is presumably freer of religious or ethnic bias. (Yes, I know the long debates about whether some dogs can seem to act "racist" in their aggressive behavior -- for another time.) 

Randomness in searches can also be very effective, so that potential attackers don't know exactly what to expect. But randomness of the type described above -- guarding the front door, but telling people it's OK to try the back -- seems less sensible. All this offered as part of our ongoing chronicle.

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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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