On Security Theatre

Do you remember when we used to be able to get up to all sorts of antics in airports, like wearing our shoes through security, carrying scissors in our luggage, and arriving 45 minutes before domestic flights?

Yeah. So do I.

The recent attempted bombing (or whatever it was, I’m not really clear on what the goal was, honestly) of an American airliner brought up a fresh round of debate about airline security, security theatre, and what we need to be “safe.” Now, I am not a security expert. Other people are, and have written about this issue at length. But I do have a few thoughts on security.

And I’ll note, for the record, that I am one of the very few people who has actually been on a flight which was hijacked. So terrorism and hijackings are not abstract things for me; I am well aware that they happen. I am well aware that they do not always work out well, either. That many people who have been on hijacked flights have not lived to tell the tale, and they might have some different opinions on security than I do.

So, that said.

The thing about security, good security, is that it is not predictable. This is pretty much a cornerstone of security. So the first thing to understand about how the TSA works is that the bulk of the security theatre you perform while going through a line is not actually done for security. The real security is going on behind and around you.

You are asked to perform in security theatre because the TSA is hoping that it will make people focus on that. Defeating security becomes about defeating what is seen, while what is unseen goes unnoticed, and is therefore effective security. You cannot schedule security. It is something which must not follow patterns.

So, from a pure security standpoint, much of what goes on in security lines is actually not necessary in the literal sense that it prevents things, but it does actually contribute directly to increased security. It’s part of an overall plan (I think the TSA calls it a “layer”) which is designed to support a security plan.

It annoys me on a lot of levels that we are forced to perform in this way. A lot of critiques of the practices of the TSA have been raised (including, humorously, that the TSA is “inconsistent,” which is exactly what they are supposed to be). Many of those critiques are very valid.

Many of these critiques are actually rooted in the fact that the randomness necessary for good security is not happening with the TSA. The TSA is too predictable. Or maybe it’s not; after all, there have been no successful attacks on American airliners since the 11 September attacks.

For me, dealing with the TSA is purely frustrating, for two reasons:

  1. I have an FBI red flag warning.
  2. All of my luggage always comes up positive for nitroglycerin.

Now, I’m sure that there are people with red flag warnings who have luggage which tests positive for nitro who are a threat. I am not one of those people. Yet, every time I fly (long before 2001 and the TSA), I am subjected to an absurd series of things. I am strip searched at security, I am searched at the gate, my luggage is searched and checked. I have been detained, I have been questioned.

The bonus, for me, is that because all of this is so obvious, all of the other passengers are afraid of me, and inevitably, when I get on the aircraft, whoever is seated in the same row asks the cabin staff if they can be moved, so I end up with three seats to myself. Double bonus: Apparently nothing bars me from sitting in the emergency exit row, which means that I get three seats and leg room.

But, clearly, this is not a good move, security wise. Focusing on me over and over again denies the opportunity for randomness, and wastes resources. Screening me takes much longer than it does for other passengers; the TSA needs a better system for flagging people who are serious risks, and that system needs to be implemented better.

It especially needs a way to recognize that some people with disabilities may appear to behave erratically in security, but that doesn’t mean that they are up to no good. I, for example, become extremely anxious in environments like airports, and I do very odd things. I rock, I stare fixedly, I jump when people come near me, I won’t meet anyone’s eyes. This is all “suspicious” behaviour, but the reasons for it are not that I am planning something, they are that I am trying to keep myself from falling apart. Disability sensitivity isn’t just about learning to handle wheelchair users, people who wear braces, and so on in security, it’s about learning to distinguish between, say, someone on the autism spectrum who is having a very hard time, and someone who is carrying a bomb.

The thing about security theatre which troubles me, aside from whether or not it is successful, which is something that I am not really in a position to assess, is that it has some unfortunate implications. While it may be necessary and effective, it’s also training citizens to obey authority without question. Indeed, some rights are being stripped away with TSA practices, and that is concerning for me. Because I think that authority is something which should be questioned and explored. And I think that we need to balance the need for effective security with the need to protect citizens.

When you’re going through airport security, you can choose to assert yourself, or you can submit, and actually be able to get on your plane. Like others, I fear winding up on the Do Not Fly list, only for me, it’s actually not a distant possibility; if I mess up, even in a minor way, while going through security, that could be it for me.

There has got. To be. A better way. To do this.