Pillars of Airport Security

23:26 Sun 10 Jun 2007
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“Airport security” is getting more and more ridiculous. It was already quite ridiculous, but the reactive nature of it, so apparent over the last couple of years, makes it more so. Some guy tried to use “shoe bombs”, so now everyone has to take their shoes off. There was an alleged plot involving liquids, so now they’ve banned liquids from planes (despite the fact that such a plot was foiled in the 90s, too, and wasn’t exactly a new attack vector).

TSA officials have been discovered dumping all of the confiscated liquids into open containers, which both demonstrates what they actually think (you don’t casually dump stuff you think is dangerous like that) and that they’re not really too smart (because randomly mixing unknown chemicals, even safe ones, has the potential for ill effects, which is why some TSA staff ended up getting sick from noxious fumes). They’ve also given away the digestible liquids (bottled water, etc.) to homeless people, which is a nice gesture but also underscores the fact that they, like everyone in the line, know that none of the stuff they’re making a huge deal about taking from people is dangerous.

So why do they do it, then? Why do the powers-that-be insist on these measures, which clearly aren’t going to help much against determined, organized, and intelligent attackers? I think there are three main reasons.

Reassurance. I should call this “pseudoreassurance”, really, since it reassures only with the complicity of a political/media culture that doesn’t harshly critique it for what it is. But the basic idea is that they want to be seen to be doing something, and that the very public measures make it look like they’re trying. In fact, the inconvenience helps this message get across… and distract from all the non-public measures that are likely more important and being paid less attention by the security apparatus.

Pork. The fear instilled in the public over security issues means that politicians have a bonus chance to feed at the trough of taxpayer money. They can claim to be addressing public needs/wants, and get their hands on a lot of funding that can be disbursed to companies with the right connections. All of the infrastructure for the additional airport inconvenience measures costs a lot of money, money that translates into political favors.

Frog-boiling*. Inconveniences like these, with the attendant proliferation of petty tyrants at all levels of “security”, move the population to be more accepting of authoritarian bureaucracy, and to the idea that it’s neceesary for public safety to comply with rules, regulations, and directives from people in uniform. This shift, over time, is altering the nature of American society, in particular the prevailing attitudes towards authority.

If you try to slowly boil a frog in a pot by raising the temperature very gradually, the frog will in fact jump out—but the metaphor is too useful to give up.

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