If the TSA Were Running New York

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How would it respond to this weekend's Times Square bomb threat? Well, by extrapolation from its response to the 9/11 attacks and subsequent threats, the policy would be:


- All vans or SUVs headed into Midtown Manhattan would have to stop and have their contents inspected. If any vehicle seemed for any reason to have escaped inspection, Midtown in its entirety would be evacuated;

- A whole new uniformed force -- the Times Square Security Administration, or TsSA - would be formed for this purpose;

- The restrictions would never be lifted and the TsSA would have permanent life, because the political incentives here work only one way. A politician who supports more open-ended, more thorough, more intrusive, more expensive inspections can never be proven "wrong." The absence of attacks shows that his measures have "worked"; and a new attack shows that inspections must go  further still. A politician who wants to limit the inspections can never be proven "right." An absence of attacks means that nothing has gone wrong -- yet. Any future attack would always and forever be that politician's "fault." Given that asymmetry of risks, what public figure will ever be able to talk about paring back the TSA?

Something about airplanes and air travel heightens the emotional response to such threats (as Bruce Schneier and I discussed in a Second Life conversation recently). Thus the mood of fear and panic after this event seems less than after the foiled "underwear bombing" airline plot at Christmas time. But as a matter of logic, the steps above are what the TSA approach would necessitate. After all, we still feel the consequences (shoes off! no liquids!) of the failed "shoe bomber" in 2001, and there is no foreseeable reason to expect that to change.

There is one other crucial element in the Times Square case, and it can't be stressed often enough. So far we have seen a New York-style rather than a Washington-style response to the threat. And while New York is the least "American" of U.S. cities, its emotional and social response is just what America's should be. Let me explain: 


i-love-new-york.gif

The point of terrorism is not to "destroy." It is to terrify. And for eight and a half years now, the dominant federal government response to terrorist threats and attacks has been to magnify their harm by increasing a mood of fear and intimidation. That is the real case against the ludicrous "orange threat level" announcements we hear every three minutes at the airport. It's not just that they're pointless, uninformative, and insulting to our collective intelligence; it's that their larger effect is to make people feel frightened rather than brave.

I won't go into the arguments about whether creation of an ever-threatened public mood is deliberate, or what interests it serves. I'll just say: it works against larger American interests (as argued here), and New York in these past two days has shown the alternative. That is nothing more than: being alert, but living your life and not skulking around terrified. I hate to say that when people act fearful, "the terrorists win," but it's true.

After the jump, quotes from a National Security Network posting today that lays out the importance of being resilient, as New Yorkers in general are doing now. I am anything but a Gothamite in spirit. "Nice place to visit" is about as far as I'll go. But today I say: I Heart NY! 

From the National Security Network "Taking on Terror" essay:

This is at least the tenth such plot on New York foiled since 9/11/2001, and the city continues to thrive. Just hours after the failed attack was discovered and the vehicle removed, Times Square was once again packed and back to business. The vendor who alerted police was among the first back at work, "out here showing my colors" at 8:30 Sunday morning.Such resiliency has "historically been one of the United States' great national strengths," says terrorism expert and President of the Center for National Policy Stephen Flynn. While resilience foils terrorists' intentions, the overreaction and fear-mongering advocated by some conservatives creates a siege mentality that works against America's interests and strengths. Today we can be proud of our police and our fellow-citizens - and we should all take a lesson from New York.

New Yorkers demonstrate resilience, refuse to give in to fear. During and after the bomb scare this weekend, New York City residents showed why awareness and resolve are the best means for defusing terrorist threats... Following the scare, New York City officials were keen not to raise fears unnecessarily by indulging in speculation about the thwarted attack.
The next morning, it was clear that New Yorkers and visitors alike would not be intimidated by the evening's drama. The Washington Post reported: "...it was a testament to the national resilience that Times Square was packed again Sunday morning, just a few hours after the vehicle was disarmed and removed. The only visible signs of the close call the night before were the scores of police officers on the scene, including the white Technical Assistance Response Unit vans surveying the hours of video surveillance recordings from the cameras that are a ubiquitous staple of New York's post-Sept. 11 life." ...

In a piece for Foreign Affairs in 2008, Steve Flynn, now President of the Center for National Policy, noted: "...A climate of fear and a sense of powerlessness caused by the threats of terrorism and natural disasters are undermining American ideals and fueling political demagoguery. Rebuilding the resilience of American society is the way to reverse this and respond to today's challenges."

Editor of Newsweek International and Washington Post Columnist Fareed Zakaria writes that "The purpose of terrorism is to provoke an overreaction. Its real aim is not to kill the hundreds of people directly targeted but to sow fear in the rest of the population. Terrorism is an unusual military tactic in that it depends on the response of the onlookers. If we are not terrorized, then the attack didn't work." Similarly, Marc Lynch, senior fellow at CNAS and professor at George Washington University, explains that an "overreaction" to terrorism attempts plays "right into the hands of a terrorist group."

Next step in the thought experiment: after wondering what NY would look like this weekend if run by the TSA, imagining what the TSA might be like if run in the spirit of this weekend's NY.

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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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