Security Insanity, Cont.

By James Fallows

In dispatches previously here and here, I mentioned one instance of security-theater being ratcheted back, and another of its permanence. Now, two more items reporting modest progress in the "sanity about security" campaign. After that, some less heartening accounts. A reader writes:

Security was ratcheted back at Heathrow recently. Yesterday I got a flight Heathrow-Dublin and accidentally left my pocket knife in carry on. Instead of losing it, it was allowed - new rule is blades under 6cm are ok. Unfortunately, it wasn't allowed on the way back Dublin-Heathrow, which is expectedly silly. Fortunately I could check my bag.

In the same vein:

I hesitate to mention it, but I have noticed that it is now rarely necessary to take one's quart bag of cosmetics out of one's carry-on bag when going through TSA screening in the U.S. and China (China experience was last night). I presume that the screeners can see it and analyze it easily enough using the X-ray machine.

On the other hand, reader Kostya, from upstate New York, reports:

I was standing in the security line at a Manhattan federal building recently. My partner Barbara was with me and I told her it was strange for me being there and seeing the photos of President Obama and Vice President Biden staring down on us. The last time I was there, the photo was of GHWB and I did not remember VP Quayle being there. It was further strange to me since I now live in a Catskills hollow and rarely go into government buildings and I am not used to seeing Barack Obama's smiling presidential photo anywhere except on my computer screen.

A guard in the security detail heard me say this to Barbara and came up to us and asked us to show him our identification. No on else in line was asked to produce IDs. We complied and he seemed satisfied. While walking away from us he asked me to stand on the carpet, the common kind of narrow runner many buildings and homes use. Evidently, the carpet has hidden powers that keep the building secure.

I admit I was pissed that the security guy, someone who gets paid to spend his day hanging out near an x-ray machine telling people to stay on the carpet, offended me. Plus, he was black and I am white and my unconscious racism must have contributed to my anger. My experience was a "how dare he" moment on many levels.

Nevertheless, it was my conversation with my partner, my speech, that made this guy ask us and no one else, for our ID. Had I complained about being singled out, we probably would created a major incident that would have included our being arrested and/or removed from the building and missing our meeting.

Just another anecdote from the new national security reality.

And a reader in Italy writes:

Ever the suspecting, non-trusting fellow, I wonder how many realize that this is not about stupidity or mindless bureaucracy, but about the fastest growing business on earth: security.

After the jump, a report on the security-theater ratchet in China. Thanks to all.

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A reader in Shanghai writes:

Re: your recent posts on security theater, this from today's Shanghai Daily (emphasis added):

>>Swimming pools across the city have introduced security checks at entrances, banning swimmers from bringing drinks, as well as big bottles of shampoo and body wash into the facilities, an official with the Shanghai Sports Bureau said yesterday. The new regulation took effect on June 20 and will continue to September 10. It was issued by the sports bureau, the Shanghai Public Security Bureau and other departments to ensure the city is safe during the World Expo period, said an official surnamed Li with the Shanghai Social Sports Management Center of the sports bureau. Other dangerous or flammable articles such as knives, alcohol and gasoline were also on the ban list, Li said.

>>"Large swimming centers or parks will be equipped with X-ray machines at the entrances for baggage checks," Li said. "But the checks will be carried out by security guards at smaller swimming pools." However, security checks will not be as strict as those at the Expo site. Visitors may still take small containers of drinks, shampoo or body wash if approved by security guards. "They may bring their beverages if they drink some in front of the guards to prove that they are safe," Li said. She said they could also bring in a small bottle of shampoo or body wash after showing them to guards.

>>"An official surnamed Zhang with Dino Beach, a water park in Shanghai, said they had installed X-ray machines last year. Zhang said the machines can detect dangerous or flammable substances so visitors may still bring shampoo or body wash into the park if they pass the security check. The park has also prepared free shampoo and body wash for swimmers."<<
The Expo has served as the all-purpose excuse for everything for the last 5 years in Shanghai, being even more general than the "since 9-11" explanation for everything security-related in the US. But seriously, what the hell? I'm not aware of any potential or actual threat to Shanghai's swimming pools.

I have a running bet with a Beijing resident, who says that security checks to enter the Beijing metro put in place for the Olympics are still there and will not go away, and that similar checks put in place for the Expo will also become permanent. I maintain that SH residents won't put up with them (there have been several "incidents") but I am beginning to wonder...

It certainly is true that the "special" Olympic security measures in Beijing have stayed on next two years after the Games have ended. I will be impressed -- and, I have to say, surprised -- if the results are different in Shanghai.

And, one more, from an American reader who thinks I'm being too negative-sounding:

The ratchet goes both ways, of course. After 9/11 it was reported that many facilities in small towns across the country had instituted security measures (the Onion made fun of it, at least). I'm fairly sure that the Terre Haute Public Library no longer requires a full-body x-ray scan to enter its children's afternoon reading hour. Likewise, Yankee Stadium has pretty strict rules about bringing bags into the facility, but it's an outlier in this regard, which was probably not true in late 2001. It's just not true that security measures, once adopted, cling like barnicles. Some do, some don't. I wish I had better documentation on this to offer you, but surely a time traveler to, say, the spring of 2002 would notice much greater restrictions?

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2010/07/security-insanity-cont/59364/