Three colleagues

Often I make some explanatory or background comment about my own article in each new issue of the Atlantic. But I don't like to say much about other articles, because on the merits I'd end up saying: Hey, read them all, they're all great! Usually, and especially in this issue, they are.

For special reasons I want to mention three current items by my colleagues.

1) Jeffrey Goldberg's hilarious-but-serious takedown of the TSA. The wasteful spectacle of "security theater" has been on my mind for a long time, as the folly of this system was evident from pretty near the start. Very soon after 9/11, the only two airline-security measures that really matter -- fortified cockpit doors, and the vigilance of a flying public that now knows what a hijacking can mean -- were in place. Since then we've erected an edifice that imposes a huge indirect cost on the traveling public while (as Jeff points out in the article) doing very little to discourage serious terrorist threats. Two years ago in the Atlantic, I quoted John Mueller, author of Overblown, to similar effect:

The widely held view among security experts is that this airport spending is largely for show. Strengthened cockpit doors and a flying public that knows what happened on 9/11 mean that commercial airliners are highly unlikely to be used again as targeted flying bombs. "The inspection process is mostly security theater, to make people feel safe about flying," says John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State and the author of a forthcoming book about the security-industrial complex.

But there seems to be a ratchet effect in "security theater" projects. Once a "safeguard"  is adopted, no one dares propose taking it down. Here in Beijing, X-ray screening for all handbags, briefcases, and other parcels taken onto the subway was introduced as a special Olympic-security measure last July. The games are gone, but the screeners (and the long lines of people waiting in front of them) are still there. If logic and evidence had any power to change a system, Jeff Goldberg's article would have some effect.

Recommended Reading

2) Barbara Wallraff, in the latest entry in her new Atlantic blog, asks for a word to describe people whose street etiquette takes a certain form. My nominee is "the people of Beijing and Shanghai." I was actually planning to write something about the mysterious difference between Chinese and Japanese walking-styles on the street. (Pedestrians in Tokyo, in general, act as if they're aware that ten million other people need to fit onto the same streets, and make themselves small. Pedestrians in Shanghai or Beijing, in the same overgeneralization, act as if they're the only ones walking and make themselves big.) Details, theory, evidence, and photos for another time.

3) Andrew Sullivan, in this item, has very nice and accurate things to say about the Atlantic's elegant redesign, and about the virtues of actually subscribing to the magazine. He is right on all counts -- and also has a very polished and non-bloggish essay about blogs in this issue. As for subscribing, in the short term the physical magazine really is an important complement to the (ever more important) web site, in that it can combine photos, art, and text in a way not matched on screen. I feel this difference very keenly overseas, where I get print issues five or six weeks late. It's simply different to read a magazine like this on a designed page. And in the long run, this is part of how businesses like ours survive.