A Way Out of the Security Theater Impasse?

Could the public accept responsibility for important choices?

I mentioned earlier today that I was fatalistically resigned to the security-theater "ratchet." Politicians or security agencies can keep loading on extra "security" features, but politically they can't afford to take them away. My colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates came to a similar conclusion here.

From reader Don Friedman, a suggestion that might initially seem trivial but that appeals to me more as I think about it. It's a way to have the public share responsibility for setting the right balance in "security" measures, rather than complaining about measures the government introduces and then blaming politicians if anything goes wrong. He says (emphasis added):

>>As you suggest, the controversy over the new security measures gives us the opportunity to think about what level of risk we are willing to bear, recognizing that risk can never be reduced to zero....

The outcry against the new search techniques creates an opportunity here for the Administration to start a process to educate the public about the risk equation. Were I the President, I would immediately arrange for polling of air travelers in order to get some data as to just how unpopular these measures are. If the polling shows that these measures are actually supported by the majority of travelers, then the Administration should announce that fact and state that, since air travelers want this additional level of security, we'll keep the measures in place. If, on the other hand, polling shows these to be unpopular, the President should make a speech to the country in which he announces the suspension of these security measures by popular demand and then discusses the risks of terrorism, talks about the fact that the country is not prepared to take every possible precaution (since to do so would turn the country into an environment akin to the old Soviet Union), and we need to balance the efficacy of security measures against the impact on quality of life and the rule of law.

This can, and should, be used by the President as a "teaching moment" which we badly need. I think that most people in this country, characteristically, want it both ways--they want an absolute guarantee of safety and they don't want to be inconvenienced. People need to understand that there are trade-offs here.<<

You can imagine practical problems here. If you poll only air travelers, is that elitist? And who counts as an air traveler anyway? And how do Presidents conduct polls? And so on. You can  also imagine conceptual issues. Would people really take "responsibility" for a different security/liberty balance, once an attack occurred? Etc. But with those to one side, it's a very useful thought experiment about how to get out of this bind, by involving the public in this choice.

After the jump, two other messages about striking the right security balance. Then I will try to leave this alone for a while.

Fred H. Cate, director of the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research at Indiana University, has posted (PDF here) a letter to Senators Rockfeller and Hutchinson, making a detailed case against the pointlessness of the "enhanced" security measures. Samples:

>> •Intrusive searches often don't work. They have been repeatedly shown to miss potential explosives and other contraband. A TSA agent, wearing gloves, searching through clothes, just isn't likely to find a thin wafer of plastic explosives secreted under an arm, against the small of the back, between the legs, or on the soles of the feet.

• This is especially true of the searches triggered by the presence of medical devices. Hand searches are simply incapable of determining whether or not the "anomalous" device presents a risk. For example, I am a diabetic on an insulin pump--a tiny device strapped to my waist that provides life-sustaining insulin. Despite the fact that the device causes no alarm, the agent searches me head to toe, including a careful pat-down of my genitals (as if somehow my genitals have become suspicious because I use an insulin pump), but at the end of the search has no better idea than he did at the beginning whether the pump is loaded with insulin or high-tech explosives. The search is the very definition of "security theater"--it looks like the agency is doing something, but it accomplishes nothing. The same is true with most other medical devices. After agents finish feeling the breasts of a woman with an implant, they have not better idea whether the implant is filled with liquid explosives or silicone. The same is true with prosthetic limbs and urostomy bags...

 • The new policy is demoralizing for TSA agents. They often comment about this. As one TSA agent in Indianapolis put it to me last week, said "you wouldn't believe what we have to put up with from Washington. If those bureaucrats would spend even 15 minutes in the field, they would quickly realize how silly many of their policies are."<<

And from another reader, an argument that politicians should be braver and more honest on this issue than they now are:

>>Discussions about this topic in the press are painfully over-simplistic, and supporters of such measures always fall back on "the people support it" as a trump argument. It appears the White House is currently embracing that idea full bore with their view that only a slow press week has caused the uproar.

There are many subjects where polling is irrational. Megan McCardle has frequently provide evidence regarding how the public responds to economic polls--they support more spending, less taxes and a balanced budget. The same effect is in place on this topic. "People support it" because the other side of the argument is never presented.

There seems to be a school of thought that any additional procedure for safety is a rational behavior for public officials since they will be blamed when the next terrorist event occurs. The logic seems to be that the officials will be able to say "we did everything possible." Wrong. When the next attack occurs they will be blamed no matter what procedures are, or are not, in place. Even for political purposes the focus should be on actual safety, not the theater. For purely political reasons, policy makers would be better off plugging the holes in cargo security instead of buying back-scatter machines. Of course it would actually increase public safety too.<<