Security Through Stupidity

photo of unhappy Chip at Seatac

I've just returned from a week in British Columbia, which served as my belated honeymoon. It was a wonderful trip, except for the bits that involved airports. Airline security is maddeningly stupid, and just seems to be getting worse.

When I think about the current climate of fear and stupidity, I end up, well, exasperated. I don't understand how we've allowed our country to be remade into that which we abhor.

I can sort of understand the logic behind (even if I don't agree with) the ban of fluid amounts over 3 ounces. But why are we still doing the stupid shoe thing? Exactly what sort of object can be conveyed in a shoe that can't be carried in the pocket of my pants?

Measures such as this are what Bruce Schneier calls security theater—security countermeasures that provide the feeling of security while doing little or nothing actually to improve security. The problem is that these measures aren't mere inconvenience. They have a real, significant cost.

The climate of fear we have cultivated—and stoked through these intrusive security measures—creates an environment of hate and intolerance. We're now at a point where merely looking Arabic and speaking in a Middle Eastern tongue can trigger a security incident that grounds an airplane. Even worse, when it happens, we seem ready to accept the excuse that the woman who did this was just being a good mother, protecting her family. In fact, the opposite is true. The lesson of intolerance and fear is not good parenting.

The other problem with security theater is economic. I'm perplexed why this argument hasn't had more resonance. The benefits of security theater are marginal, while the costs are enormous. I know from my work with software that you try to make all operations—from seeking specific information to making a purchase—as natural and simple as possible. "Frictionless" is the buzzword du jour. Removing unwanted friction is key to the design and operation of complex systems. Failure to do so results in costs and system failure.

Friction isn't always a bad thing. It's what makes a cruising car come to a stop. Friction in the process can prevent a file from being accidentally deleted—or a terrorist from sauntering onto the plane. The trick is ensuring that the friction is applied at the correct time, on the correct place, and in the correct amount.

Our airport security measures aren't doing that. We've just stuck a jamb in the works and gummed up the whole bloody thing. Then, we've patted ourselves on the back for how good a job we've done at stopping the terrorists.

What surprises me the most is that the people who are most in a position to influence this situation are those most subjected to it. Politicians and captains of industry are some of the most frequent fliers in the country. I don't understand why they allow this to persist. Is it because they see some value in having their odor eaters x-rayed? Or, the more cynical among us may ask, do they see value in maintaining the current climate of fear and distrust?

So, with my travel, I've been thinking a lot about how this situation has been allowed to evolve and subsist. I recently read an article that threw some light on this, How Political Psychology Explains Bush's Ghastly Success. John Judis claims that fear of mortality, such as that raised by the WTC terrorists, triggers a "worldview defense". That would be consistent with many of the troubling issues raised by current airport security measures.

The good news is that fear recedes and people start responding more rationally once things cool down and events direct people to act more thoughtfully.

So, here's hoping that the next president and congress are successful are undoing the damage and stupidity caused by the current regime.