In Defense of Security Theater (Sorta)

I travel often, and until relatively recently I was doing over 100,000 miles a year. I've cut back a lot because my jobs have changed and I felt bad about my carbon footprint, but the bottom line is I've spent a lot of quality time with the TSA. And amidst all of the recent (often justified) blowback against their more-intrusive personal pat-downs, I thought I'd articulate a little bit of why overall, the security theater we go through at airports these days doesn't really bother me.

First, some important points:

  • I'm not suggesting that taking off our shoes at x-rays, or having our testicles tapped, or not having more than 3 ounces of liquids actually keep us safe against any innovative new attacks.
  • There are absolutely documented cases of a few of the many thousands of TSA agents out there abusing their stations, with infractions ranging from questionable to egregiously immoral.
  • I'm not in favor of a police state, and strongly support civil disobedience and effective attempts to change overbearing security policies.
  • TSA security policies are ridiculously over-focused on the last attempted attacks, instead of future ones.

With all that being said, I don't think our current system of security theater as practiced by the TSA is necessarily the wrong thing to do.

The Hand You're Dealt

The TSA lists their mission as "protect[ing] the Nation’s transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce." A mission like that is a bit like the mission of our financial regulatory agencies after the recent market meltdowns — some of it is about putting in place better preventive policies, but a lot of it is also about managing perceptions. Free movement of people essentially relies on the largest number of those people feeling safe to move.

And many people, frankly, are pretty stupid about air travel. They don't do it often, don't have a mental model of how air travel really works, aren't particularly educated about the security processes they have to participate in, and aren't logical in the way they respond to security measures.

I don't say any of these things as criticisms, just as observations based on experience. More often than not, the person behind me or in front of me in the security line at an airport seems to be unsure of some part of the process, not just at the level of "is it time to take our shoes off now?" but at the deeper sense of "what is this process I'm taking part in?" And often, their behaviors are similarly uninformed. Sure, I've gotten annoyed at having to go through random secondary screening, but that's frankly only happened a tiny fraction of the time I travel. By contrast, every single time I get on a plane in the U.S., I see at least one person studiously watching me put my belongings on the conveyor belt, as if they're performing an act of heroism by personally observing me. Sure, I look a lot like Marwan al-Shehhi, but I'm not sure their memories are that good.

I don't point that out in order to (merely) begrudge them their prejudices, though. I point it out because the TSA has to serve those people, too. Most of us who control the conversation on social media or in the rarified air of traditional media are experienced flyers, who pride ourselves on the logical rigor of our analyses of TSA technique. But we're not the majority of flyers. And some large percentage of people who travel, in order to feel safe, have to see or feel an experience that addresses their fears about traveling, regardless of whether that experience is based in logic or rationality.

Enter The Theater

This is where the "theater" aspect of security theater comes in. Any theatrical performance is designed to elicit a feeling in its audience, even though that's obviously a manufactured or even emotionally manipulative process. In the case of security theater, part of the TSA's mission is to elicit the feeling of safety from travelers. This is a good thing. As much as it pains those of us in the media establishment to say so, it is just as legitimate for the TSA to have "make people feel safe" as a goal as it is to have "make people actually be safe".

In the particular case of invasive body-scanning technology, this obviously raises the question of what we mean by "safe". There's safe from people hiding secret explosives or weapons, and then there's safe from the prying eyes of government employees. The majority of travelers, who aren't always savvy or logical in their evaluations of such processes, and who only rarely have to face the indignities of the situation anyway, don't see governmental intrusiveness as being nearly as "unsafe" as the other form of potential risk.

So, if you were in charge of the TSA, which audience of travelers would you piss off? I think the only reasonable choice you could make would probably look something like the current compromise, once you consider the different segments of the public you have to address, the level of training and experience of current field staff, and the variety of threats that are actually being attempted.

Keep in mind: If someone did get through with another shoe bomb, or someone successfully made a liquid explosive after that potential risk had been identified, or body-scanning technology was made available to stop certain types of attacks and the TSA knew about it but didn't use it, they'd be subject to far more criticism than they're getting today.

Almost any institution, when faced with a situation where they'll get harshly criticized regardless of their choice, is going to choose the option that lets them accrue more power as an institution. That's true of government agencies, corporations, and any other organization that can make itself part of society. This situation simply will not ever change until such time as Americans are willing to accept that a certain level of risk of aircraft-based terror threats always exist, and Americans have consistently indicated they're not willing to live with air travel being a fraction as deadly as, say, traveling by car. It's especially unlikely to change as, at a broader level, we encourage corporations to define our policy. The TSA is a symptom of the fact Americans like to think they're going to live forever, and that they trust corporations more than their government regardless of the track record of either. Change those facts, and then maybe we can change the TSA.

A Really Crappy Job

I'll admit, part of my willingness to partially exonerate the TSA for the current levels of stupidity at airports is because it's a really, really tough job for an agency to have. While airport screeners are obviously trained, any large force of employees who deal with the public turing times of stress are going to be constantly making egregious mistakes. Hell, there's a complaint about a McDonald's worker probably every other minute, and they're not involved in examining people's bodies, just giving them french fries.

Some of the people at the agency are also trying really hard. If you look at the TSA blog, which was one of the earliest blogs launched by any federal agency, and still remains among its best, there's a concerted effort to engage the public in a smart way. When attention-seekers exaggerate their mistreatment at the hands of the TSA, they don't get engaged in a back-and-forth, they just post footage of the event in question. When TSA agents screw up, they don't publicly shame them, they just talk about what their standards are for employees. Obviously, the range and scope of current complaints have overwhelmed their social media staff of late, but part of me thinks they'll have either reasonable answers for many situations, or take accountability for the times when they were clearly wrong. I recently answered an Ask MetaFilter question about how to contact the TSA to object to current screening procedures, and was pretty surprised at the range of options available to a citizen who wants to contact the agency, as well as the likelihood of getting a thoughful response.

All of that being said, obviously I still have misgivings about the awful experience so many of us have at the airport. I'm especially affronted because I know many of the common forms of objection, including merely opting out of the body-scanning devices, would earn me far more of an inconvenience or delay at the airport than the other folks who are protesting, simply because of how I look.

But the worst excesses of the TSA are caused by our culture, and the agency is responding to our culture's values. If you want them to change their behavior, you'll have to engage with your neighbors and fellow citizens about their fears, and evolve the way we all respond to them. They may find that conversation to be far too invasive, and you'll have to decide what to do when they ask to opt-out.

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