I feel somewhat uncomfortable defending the actions of a group that seemingly brings so much discomfort to so many, but a recent Vanity Fair article on airport security not only regurgitates the obvious and well known, but lacks little strategic point of view. First, the well-known:
Not only has the actual threat from terror been exaggerated, they say, but the great bulk of the post-9/11 measures to contain it are little more than what Schneier mocks as “security theater”: actions that accomplish nothing but are designed to make the government look like it is on the job. In fact, the continuing expenditure on security may actually have made the United States less safe.
From an airplane-hijacking point of view, Schneier said, al-Qaeda had used up its luck. Passengers on the first three 9/11 flights didn’t resist their captors, because in the past the typical consequence of a plane seizure had been “a week in Havana.” When the people on the fourth hijacked plane learned by cell phone that the previous flights had been turned into airborne bombs, they attacked their attackers. The hijackers were forced to crash Flight 93 into a field. “No big plane will ever be taken that way again, because the passengers will fight back,” Schneier said.
Buried within the article is, in my opinion anyway, a very nice articulation of the problem of looking at the issue of terrorism risk simply by crunching the numbers:
Has the nation simply wasted a trillion dollars protecting itself against terror? Mostly, but perhaps not entirely. “Most of the time we assess risk through gut feelings,” says Paul Slovic, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon who is also the president of Decision Research, a nonprofit R&D organization. “We’re not robots just looking at the numbers.” Confronted with a risk, people ask questions: Is this a risk that I benefit from taking, as when I get in a car? Is it forced on me by someone else, as when I am exposed to radiation? Are the potential consequences catastrophic? Is the impact immediate and observable, or will I not know the consequences until much later, as with cancer? Such questions, Slovic says, “reflect values that are sometimes left out of the experts’ calculations.”
Security theater, from this perspective, is an attempt to convey a message: “We are doing everything possible to protect you.” When 9/11 shattered the public’s confidence in flying, Slovic says, the handful of anti-terror measures that actually work—hardening the cockpit door, positive baggage matching, more-effective intelligence—would not have addressed the public’s dread, because the measures can’t really be seen. Relying on them would have been the equivalent of saying, “Have confidence in Uncle Sam,” when the problem was the very loss of confidence. So a certain amount of theater made sense. Over time, though, the value of the message changes. At first the policeman in the train station reassures you. Later, the uniform sends a message: train travel is dangerous. “The show gets less effective, and sometimes it becomes counterproductive.”
Eventually, Bruce Schneier overreaches and follows his generally reasonable assertions with analysis that only serves to buttress his own arguments while ignoring a bit of reality:
Terrorists will try to hit the United States again, Schneier says. One has to assume this. Terrorists can so easily switch from target to target and weapon to weapon that focusing on preventing any one type of attack is foolish. Even if the T.S.A. were somehow to make airports impregnable, this would simply divert terrorists to other, less heavily defended targets—shopping malls, movie theaters, churches, stadiums, museums. The terrorist’s goal isn’t to attack an airplane specifically; it’s to sow terror generally. “You spend billions of dollars on the airports and force the terrorists to spend an extra $30 on gas to drive to a hotel or casino and attack it,” Schneier says. “Congratulations!”
This simplifies the issue in ways that are counterproductive. Two points:
1. Air travel remains an attractive target due to the cost benefit ratio: it takes very little explosive to bring down a plane and kill hundreds, while at the same time creating a spectacular event that instantaneously affects a large industry in the short and long term. The shoe or underwear bombers would have caused relatively little damage at a shopping mall or casino, but could have easily killed hundreds in an instance and caused enormous economic damage if successful on their original mission. The liquid bombing plot seemed to be aiming for thousands of deaths and a truly strategic impact, one not attainable by the same number of operatives killing themselves in other public spaces (before it is brought up, I do know of the line of reasoning that a wave of attacks against American malls would have a huge impact…but I guess that I have greater faith in citizen resilience in that we as a nation would not hide at home following such an event).
There is a lot of security theater at airports, but much of it began in response to a rash of hijackings decades ago. When there was no security it was simple to bring a gun or bomb aboard a flight, take it hostage, and gain attention for one’s political demands. Steps were taken to make this more difficult. Reasonable steps should be taken now when instead of simply attention the goals include death on a grand scale.
2. Terrorists do not simply “switch from target to target and weapon to weapon.” Groups consider their goals, determine their resources, and plan for what is then attainable. The IRA was a sophisticated group capable of inflicting a great number of civilian casualties, yet they were restrained by their political goals. Al Qaeda has different goals and therefore utilizes different methods. The same will be true of other current and future groups. If killing hundreds is a goal but resources are limited to a few poorly trained agents, targeting an airliner would seem more attractive than attempting an operation similar to the assault on Mumbai. Terror is a goal when traditional military victory is out of reach, however it should not be thought that all groups and individuals would generalize this goal into a least common denominator and aim for the easiest target. That is partly what got us into trouble the last time…(Pre-9/11: What? Worry about a group of actors with no state backing?!? Preposterous…now about those Chinese….).
Mr. Schneier has performed an invaluable service over the years bringing to light deficiencies in our homeland security thinking, and Mr. Mann (the author of the article in question) accomplishes the same by exposing it to a wider audience. Yet I can’t help but think that by not considering the issues a few steps beyond shouts of “security theater,” the conversation we should have about homeland security as a nation will not take place.