Security Theater: The New War of 1812

[Update after the jump.] My plan had been to lay off the TSA/Security Theater dispatches unless some actual event made it seem odd not to say something. That event has now arrived, in the form of complaints from Martin Broughton, the chairman of British Airways (!), saying that symbolic, redundant, and inconsistent aspects of American airport security screening had gotten out of hand. More here, here, and here. Thanks to many readers worldwide for writing to ask whether I'd seen this news.

I'm using this occasion to kick off a master wrap-up of recent user comments on "security theater" generally. Some people are tired of the (my) whining on the topic; others think that a free society depends on exactly such continued whining. The first part of the compendium comes after the jump, with comments from readers who are tired of carping criticism of the TSA. Later on, some comments on the other side. As a send off, here are the final words of a Guardian article today on Martin Broughton's request for pared-down security-theater requirements:

"Broughton is right. But history shows his words will have no useful effect. Nothing will change."

For more, read on.

After I mentioned a pilot who objected to special security screening, a reader in the tech industry begged to differ:

>>I cannot abide by the constant TSA criticism.

The TSA has to have some blunt security measure. Sure, people have to take off their shoes and belts - the horror! And then the old guy forgets the change in his pocket, has to walk through again, and thinks the whole thing is ridiculous because surely he would never blow up a plan. I can't believe that people really complain about that sort of thing. What's so hard about taking off shoes? How is walking through an imaging machine some terrible violation of privacy? Of course, real invasions of privacy occur and should be handled appropriately, but minor inconveniences shouldn't be mistaken for invasions of privacy. And yes, the liquid limit is extremely annoying, but that rule wasn't implemented on a whim. I don't know how much liquid it would take to blow up a plane, but it's probably a lot more than 3 oz. - otherwise we wouldn't be allowed to take any liquids.

So this pilot thinks he's above these silly rules? Sure, the pilot could crash his own plane if he wants, but it takes a different kind of person to kill himself. A sympathetic pilot could smuggle weapons for others. More likely, it's probably a lot easier to fake pilot's credentials than to smuggle a weapon through security. And if the pilots are exempt, who else? Surely the flight attendants, because a ripped flight attendant presumably has enough access to the pilots to take down a plane. The mechanics, too (just where do they go through security, anyway?). Instead, the blunt instrument, everyone goes through security, is the easiest approach. And from airplane conversations with security experts discussing the various ways one could blow up an airplane, the TSA does a lot more than the blunt instrument at security. But we only see the surface, so we complain, and that's probably fine with everyone.

I'm on board with the TSA rules until a terrorist blows up a plane with a functioning computer that passes through security. When that happens, and it will (there's a reason they carefully inspect computers, right? It must be a vulnerability), then we won't be able to take computers on the plane, and that's it for my flying days. I'd risk a small chance of death for my computer.<<

And in the same vein, about the arrogance or ignorance of treating flight crews differently from other people in the TSA screening queue:

>>I was very impressed with your article regarding your South Carolina reader reporting on the Delta pilot having to go through TSA screening. I am just curious how she knew he really was a Delta pilot. Because he was a white dude, [UPDATE: the original South Carolina writer responds, Why do you assume he was a "white dude"? He wasn't.] maybe 6'2", had all those IDs around his neck. There is, of course, no possibility that he bought that uniform on Ebay is there. And how many IDs around one's neck are needed so that you know the person is really, really a pilot. Is two enough? 3? 4? Or do we let white folks in pilot's uniforms (or flight attendants' uniforms) through and only screen their darker skinned cohorts who are in uniform?

Do you think that when that pilot showed up for his flight, that Delta just handed over the keys to the plane (or however they start the engines)? Or do you think they examined his ID, knowing exactly what a real Delta ID looks like.

Can you tell me how many different airline ID's there are for US Airlines? How about all the airlines in the world? Do you think you could tell the difference between a real BF Airline ID and a fake one. Do you think that TSA should be giving the TSA screeners who examine photo IDs training in recognizing all the different airline IDs and how to spot fake ones. Why do I think that if TSA did that, you would be screaming that it was a waste of taxpayers money and that the flight crews should just be screened like everyone else.

Now you know why the pilot was not upset when he was in the screening line. He got it. Unfortunately, you don't.<<

We'll hear from the other side shortly.

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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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