Asking for Trouble

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

I've been trying really hard to lay out some of the problems inherent in our noble attempts to prevent terrorism. By my lights, those efforts have been middling. Here's a good post from Fallows spelling out a lot of what's wrong. I think the end is particularly important, but please read the whole thing. It's worth it:


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." In reality, we do accept a greater-than-zero risk of death from terrorist attack. Otherwise, we'd never fly -- or would strip everyone nude before boarding, do cavity searches, and carry no cargo. We accept the bargain for efficiency reasons (I'm not going to get to the airport six hours early to be searched). We accept it on "price of liberty" grounds (I'm not going to strip naked). But politicians can't come out and say that any risk is acceptable. Nor can they take the risk themselves of saying that security-theater rituals should be dropped, because of the risk of being blamed when the next attack occurs. Thus security-theater is a ratchet. You can add it, but you can't take it away. 

 When we can't talk about what we're really doing, and when we penalize politicians for speaking the truth, we're asking for trouble. Of the sort many people will encounter at the airport tomorrow -- and in months ahead.

The question I'm always left with after reading this is this: How do you get to a place where, as a society, we cultivate a mature approach to risks facing us?

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2010/11/asking-for-trouble/66983/