Year-end pensees #2: security

Despite the best efforts of Jeffrey Goldberg in his Atlantic article last month, despite my varied efforts in articles like this and this and this, despite the books by John Mueller and others, despite the precocious academic papers of Benjamin H. Friedman -- formerly of MIT, now of Cato, not the economist Benjamin Friedman of Harvard  -- we end 2008 with the rituals of "security theater" still enshrined in American life.

As Jeff Goldberg is the latest (and most amusing) to demonstrate, security routines like those of the TSA gum up travel and cost countless billions in salary, wasted time, and general hassle (not to mention the thrown-away bottled water and cigarette lighters!) without adding much that would thwart a serious terrorist.

My heart sank when I read recently about a truly idiotic last-minute Bush Administration step to lock in security theater. This is converting the "Air Defense Identification Zone," which had been "temporarily" in effect in the skies of the Mid-Atlantic since soon after 9/11, to a permanent federal regulation. (Splenetic background from me, here and here. News of the conversion to permanent status here.) Sigh. And commercial airports in the U.S. still ring with the ignored-by-all announcements warning that the "threat level" is "elevated."

If you haven't spent much time out of the country recently, it may be hard to convey how fraidy-cat all this ritual makes the US seem. Yes, the 9/11 attacks were a disaster of historic proportions. Yes, some group, somewhere, will probably manage to attack the United States again. But many, many societies around the world face an ongoing risk of attack. Life is dangerous. Over the long run, we judge societies by how they bear up under such threats (and, of course, what they do to contain them.) Compared with the Brits, the Indians, not to mention the Israelis and I bet also the Iraqis, our security theater makes us look like chickens. Reclaiming Gary Cooper, not Chicken Little, as our national icon is part of what I argued here.

But given the way politics works, security theater is a ratchet. If a public figure dares suggest reducing some for-show "protective" measure, then when an attack occurs -- as it will, someday, in a country this large and open -- the politician will be in trouble. So it's easy to add extra "safeguards"; almost impossible to remove them.

Except, perhaps, with the general housecleaning that is possible when Administrations change. Here is one very modest place to start. Please, Gov. Janet Napolitano -- please, please, please, for the love of God --  change the name of the department you have been nominated to head. "Department of Homeland Security" is not a term a real American would use. "Homeland" is something that Germans of the 1930s would say. Or Soviet Russians of the 1950s. Not Yanks. "Domestic Security" is dull but not Orwellian. Try that, or something similar.

For more ideas, I hope that everyone who can possibly be in Washington on Jan 12-13, including Napolitano, will attend this conference, at Cato, about rational and non-hysteric ways to keep America secure. (Extra background here.) A new Administration has a chance for a new start.