Beyond Security Theater

[I was asked to write this essay for the New Internationalist (n. 427, November 2009, pp. 10–13). It’s nothing I haven’t said before, but I’m pleased with how this essay came together.]

Terrorism is rare, far rarer than many people think. It’s rare because very few people want to commit acts of terrorism, and executing a terrorist plot is much harder than television makes it appear. The best defenses against terrorism are largely invisible: investigation, intelligence, and emergency response. But even these are less effective at keeping us safe than our social and political policies, both at home and abroad. However, our elected leaders don’t think this way: they are far more likely to implement security theater against movie-plot threats.

A movie-plot threat is an overly specific attack scenario. Whether it’s terrorists with crop dusters, terrorists contaminating the milk supply, or terrorists attacking the Olympics, specific stories affect our emotions more intensely than mere data does. Stories are what we fear. It’s not just hypothetical stories: terrorists flying planes into buildings, terrorists with bombs in their shoes or in their water bottles, and terrorists with guns and bombs waging a co-ordinated attack against a city are even scarier movie-plot threats because they actually happened.

Security theater refers to security measures that make people feel more secure without doing anything to actually improve their security. An example: the photo ID checks that have sprung up in office buildings. No-one has ever explained why verifying that someone has a photo ID provides any actual security, but it looks like security to have a uniformed guard-for-hire looking at ID cards. Airport-security examples include the National Guard troops stationed at US airports in the months after 9/11 — their guns had no bullets. The US colour-coded system of threat levels, the pervasive harassment of photographers, and the metal detectors that are increasingly common in hotels and office buildings since the Mumbai terrorist attacks, are additional examples.

To be sure, reasonable arguments can be made that some terrorist targets are more attractive than others: aeroplanes because a small bomb can result in the death of everyone aboard, monuments because of their national significance, national events because of television coverage, and transportation because of the numbers of people who commute daily. But there are literally millions of potential targets in any large country (there are five million commercial buildings alone in the US), and hundreds of potential terrorist tactics; it’s impossible to defend every place against everything, and it’s impossible to predict which tactic and target terrorists will try next.

Feeling and Reality

Security is both a feeling and a reality. The propensity for security theater comes from the interplay between the public and its leaders. When people are scared, they need something done that will make them feel safe, even if it doesn’t truly make them safer. Politicians naturally want to do something in response to crisis, even if that something doesn’t make any sense.

Often, this “something” is directly related to the details of a recent event: we confiscate liquids, screen shoes, and ban box cutters on airplanes. But it’s not the target and tactics of the last attack that are important, but the next attack. These measures are only effective if we happen to guess what the next terrorists are planning. If we spend billions defending our rail systems, and the terrorists bomb a shopping mall instead, we’ve wasted our money. If we concentrate airport security on screening shoes and confiscating liquids, and the terrorists hide explosives in their brassieres and use solids, we’ve wasted our money. Terrorists don’t care what they blow up and it shouldn’t be our goal merely to force the terrorists to make a minor change in their tactics or targets.

Our penchant for movie plots blinds us to the broader threats. And security theater consumes resources that could better be spent elsewhere.

Any terrorist attack is a series of events: something like planning, recruiting, funding, practising, executing, aftermath. Our most effective defenses are at the beginning and end of that process — intelligence, investigation, and emergency response — and least effective when they require us to guess the plot correctly. By intelligence and investigation, I don’t mean the broad data-mining or eavesdropping systems that have been proposed and in some cases implemented — those are also movie-plot stories without much basis in actual effectiveness — but instead the traditional “follow the evidence” type of investigation that has worked for decades.

Unfortunately for politicians, the security measures that work are largely invisible. Such measures include enhancing the intelligence-gathering abilities of the secret services, hiring cultural experts and Arabic translators, building bridges with Islamic communities both nationally and internationally, funding police capabilities — both investigative arms to prevent terrorist attacks, and emergency communications systems for after attacks occur — and arresting terrorist plotters without media fanfare. They do not include expansive new police or spying laws. Our police don’t need any new laws to deal with terrorism; rather, they need apolitical funding. These security measures don’t make good television, and they don’t help, come re-election time. But they work, addressing the reality of security instead of the feeling.

The arrest of the “liquid bombers” in London is an example: they were caught through old-fashioned intelligence and police work. Their choice of target (airplanes) and tactic (liquid explosives) didn’t matter; they would have been arrested regardless.

But even as we do all of this we cannot neglect the feeling of security, because it’s how we collectively overcome the psychological damage that terrorism causes. It’s not security theater we need, it’s direct appeals to our feelings. The best way to help people feel secure is by acting secure around them. Instead of reacting to terrorism with fear, we — and our leaders — need to react with indomitability.

Refuse to Be Terrorized

By not overreacting, by not responding to movie-plot threats, and by not becoming defensive, we demonstrate the resilience of our society, in our laws, our culture, our freedoms. There is a difference between indomitability and arrogant “bring ’em on” rhetoric. There’s a difference between accepting the inherent risk that comes with a free and open society, and hyping the threats.

We should treat terrorists like common criminals and give them all the benefits of true and open justice — not merely because it demonstrates our indomitability, but because it makes us all safer. Once a society starts circumventing its own laws, the risks to its future stability are much greater than terrorism.

Supporting real security even though it’s invisible, and demonstrating indomitability even though fear is more politically expedient, requires real courage. Demagoguery is easy. What we need is leaders willing both to do what’s right and to speak the truth.

Despite fearful rhetoric to the contrary, terrorism is not a transcendent threat. A terrorist attack cannot possibly destroy a country’s way of life; it’s only our reaction to that attack that can do that kind of damage. The more we undermine our own laws, the more we convert our buildings into fortresses, the more we reduce the freedoms and liberties at the foundation of our societies, the more we’re doing the terrorists’ job for them.

We saw some of this in the Londoners’ reaction to the 2005 transport bombings. Among the political and media hype and fearmongering, there was a thread of firm resolve. People didn’t fall victim to fear. They rode the trains and buses the next day and continued their lives. Terrorism’s goal isn’t murder; terrorism attacks the mind, using victims as a prop. By refusing to be terrorized, we deny the terrorists their primary weapon: our own fear.

Today, we can project indomitability by rolling back all the fear-based post-9/11 security measures. Our leaders have lost credibility; getting it back requires a decrease in hyperbole. Ditch the invasive mass surveillance systems and new police state-like powers. Return airport security to pre-9/11 levels. Remove swagger from our foreign policies. Show the world that our legal system is up to the challenge of terrorism. Stop telling people to report all suspicious activity; it does little but make us suspicious of each other, increasing both fear and helplessness.

Terrorism has always been rare, and for all we’ve heard about 9/11 changing the world, it’s still rare. Even 9/11 failed to kill as many people as automobiles do in the US every single month. But there’s a pervasive myth that terrorism is easy. It’s easy to imagine terrorist plots, both large-scale “poison the food supply” and small-scale “10 guys with guns and cars.” Movies and television bolster this myth, so many people are surprised that there have been so few attacks in Western cities since 9/11. Certainly intelligence and investigation successes have made it harder, but mostly it’s because terrorist attacks are actually hard. It’s hard to find willing recruits, to co-ordinate plans, and to execute those plans — and it’s easy to make mistakes.

Counterterrorism is also hard, especially when we’re psychologically prone to muck it up. Since 9/11, we’ve embarked on strategies of defending specific targets against specific tactics, overreacting to every terrorist video, stoking fear, demonizing ethnic groups, and treating the terrorists as if they were legitimate military opponents who could actually destroy a country or a way of life — all of this plays into the hands of terrorists. We’d do much better by leveraging the inherent strengths of our modern democracies and the natural advantages we have over the terrorists: our adaptability and survivability, our international network of laws and law enforcement, and the freedoms and liberties that make our society so enviable. The way we live is open enough to make terrorists rare; we are observant enough to prevent most of the terrorist plots that exist, and indomitable enough to survive the even fewer terrorist plots that actually succeed. We don’t need to pretend otherwise.

EDITED TO ADD (11/14): Commentary from Kevin Drum, James Fallows, and The Economist.

Posted on November 13, 2009 at 6:52 AM56 Comments


Clive Robinson November 13, 2009 7:29 AM

@ Bruce,

It does pull things together quite well but…

Your second paragraph is a little problematic,

The way it is written it appears to say that the Olympics being attacked by terrorists never happened. And that an attack with a liquid bomb of the sort those accused in the UK supposadly where going to use did happen.

Also is the “road deaths” statistic correct?

RM, UK November 13, 2009 8:03 AM

The 2nd para concludes that all these things have happened.

The 9/11 attacks resulted in over 2900 deaths. The most recent figures I could find (year ending 2007), put the monthly death toll on US roads at 3400.

Finally, Bruce is right, if we let them frighten us, force us to change the way we live, they win.

ruthling November 13, 2009 8:12 AM

Very well said. All this security theater has a cost, and that cost also includes lives not to mention tons of money, frustration and reduced mental health.

The idea that someone might poison our food supply isn’t so far off — people get sick and even die due to contaminated food all the time. This isn’t because of terrorism, it’s good old fashioned laziness (profit is king!), poor regulation, and bad luck. Who needs to bother when we’re doing so well already?

HJohn November 13, 2009 9:13 AM

Great article.

In regards to this comment — “However, our elected leaders don’t think this way: they are far more likely to implement security theater against movie-plot threats.” — that sums up what I mentioned on another post of yours, that a tragic flaw in any elected government is that perception trumps reality. No real fix for it since 100 million votes can’t really be educated effectively, and the alternative (not electing leaders) is more frightening.

AppSec November 13, 2009 9:56 AM

I’m wondering how many here would think that “DR” is “security theater” for businesses. Aren’t those based on “movie plot” and rare instances?

It would seem to me that a nation should protect its assets no differently than a corporation would protect theirs.

Now, the implementation might be different, but if you think in terms of scale — the IBMS, Oracles, Microsofts of the world — are just about as large as some small nations!

So, is Mass Surveillence really that bad? Isn’t it just as much a movie plot threat that some insider will take advantage of it as much as it is a “movie plot” threat that supossedly created the need?

That isn’t to say that I agree with everything that has been done (airport security is annoying and bad)..

Patrick G. November 13, 2009 9:57 AM

Regarding the London citizen’s “cool” reaction in the aftermath of the bombing there:

The UK citizens have lived with the threat of terrorism for decades, since the IRA used to plant bombs (and warnings thereof) and kill people rather frequently. Same goes for Southwest Europe, where ETA fights against France and Spain with bombs and assassinations.

It’s a bit different for the US, especially since the vague threats of the Cold War going hot evaporated in the 90s.

It’s not hard to understand with the Middle East and Asia thousands of (sea-)miles away and the own military unchallenged in he world, who wouldn’t feel secure and close to invulnerable.

So 9/11 hit the US public much harder, because it also destroyed that feelings.

Andy in NC November 13, 2009 9:58 AM

Clive has a good point: Bruce is comparing apples to oranges in numbers of deaths. Tell the parent of a murdered child that, on average, more kids die through accidents of their own fault.

HJohn November 13, 2009 10:10 AM

@AppSec: “To be blunt reputation does not figure highly on most managment radar self interest and short termisum does.”

It depends on how they use DR.

If they gear it towards a specific rare tactic or event, yes.

If it is geared towards recovery in the event of a loss of data, equipment, a main office, etc., regardless of the specific event that caused it, then no.

One must also consider the entity and impact of an outage.

Keeping it relative November 13, 2009 10:13 AM

Same goes for this overhypped H1N1 flu, which if I recall is about half as deadly as the seasonal flu, but oh gosh its NEW and scary.

Wake me up when we get the actual super-flu promised us by Steven King.

Brandioch Conner November 13, 2009 10:15 AM

“Tell the parent of a murdered child that, on average, more kids die through accidents of their own fault.”

I don’t think you understood that.

Since, statistically, more kids die through accidents, wouldn’t you spend more time and money trying to prevent accidents?

How effective would it be to warn your children not to get into a red 2003 Ford Taurus with a dark-haired man? That is what “security theatre” is.

HJohn November 13, 2009 10:21 AM

I agree that money is being wasted and that things like taking off shoes are a wasteful annoyance.

But one thing I think is tough to deal with. While terrorists will change their tactics, I wonder how much copycatting there would be if we didn’t defend against certain tactics.

I’m talking about people who aren’t smart enough to come up with a new tactic themselves but will mimick what they heard about. Dumb people may not be masterminds, but they can still do a lot of damage if shown how.

I’m not saying that i agree with tactic based screening like shoe removal and liquid banning. Yet, I don’t know of a way to measure how many people wouldn’t copy something if the tactics based screening wasn’t there to deter them. This is probably what the TSA is thinking when they do CYA.

HJohn November 13, 2009 10:25 AM

@Andy in NC: “Tell the parent of a murdered child that, on average, more kids die through accidents of their own fault.”

I doubt that is what Bruce means. I’ve never heard him say ignore murderers or terrorists and spend the money on cars.

What I believe he is saying is it makes little sense for someone to avoid flying because they are afraid of terrorists… then get in a car without an airbag and drive 1,000 miles without a seat belt on.

That’s the type of person who doesn’t assess risk well.

David November 13, 2009 10:38 AM

@Keeping It Relative: What we’ve got in H1N1 is a very infectious strain that kills in an odd way, demographically. Right now, it isn’t all that lethal, but it’s already killed more children in the US than the typical flu season does (not many; very few children die to seasonal flu). Even if it isn’t particularly lethal on a per case basis, its transmissibility suggests it may infect many more people than the seasonal flu. Then, also, it might come back in another, more lethal, wave, like the 1918-1919 flu.

It’s not worth fretting about, but it is worth taking precautions about. The vaccine is too late to stop a lot of infections, but it’ll be well worth it if we could stop another wave of H1N1.

TesserId November 13, 2009 10:50 AM

“But even as we do all of this we cannot neglect the feeling of security, because it’s how we collectively overcome the psychological damage that terrorism causes. It’s not security theater we need, it’s direct appeals to our feelings. The best way to help people feel secure is by acting secure around them. Instead of reacting to terrorism with fear, we — and our leaders — need to react with indomitability.”

O.K., so “Security Theater” is a placebo, and you’re saying this is the wrong kind of placebo.

Perhaps those that prefer the current placebo feel that it will only be effective if it appears to be expensive. And, perhaps a placebo that is taken more often will be more effective.

It would seem that the optimum placebo would not remind us or our fears–and also have an overt reassuring presence. I guess the actual cost isn’t important as long as it appears to be the correct amount.

So, those that are making the real decisions on these expenditures should be taking time to look at how often uniformed guards are a reassuring presence versus how often they are an unsettling presence.

Don Marti November 13, 2009 10:56 AM

Excellent point on using the regular legal system. Let’s not help the terrorists recruit by building them up into big bad-asses who need to be kept in SECRET PRISONS if caught. The message needs to be, “you will get caught, and you will end up in a regular Federal prison, next to a guy who got convicted of robbing a mail carrier or something.”

George November 13, 2009 11:06 AM

You sound so much more authoritative with a British accent!

Unfortunately, a reasoned argument like yours can never compete with the sort of appeal to the lizard-brain that the Homeland Security folks and their bosses have so successfully deployed. That’s something “conservatives” learned long ago from their Fascist cousins, but liberals and moderates seem constitututionally incapable of grokking. Ashcroft prevented any serious debate on the USA-PATRIOT Act by insisting that every minute of delay strengthens the terrorists and any questioning or opposition to any of it aids the enemy. Bush won a second term against the effete ineffective Kerry by relentlessly focusing on fear.

The lizard-brain approach doesn’t just apply to security theatre. Watching the recent House health care bill debate, Republican opponents consistently hammered home a litany of fear about “stealing freedom” and “government takeover,” while Democratic proponents resorted to more reasoned arguments about fairness the plight of the uninsured. And In California, the religious opponents of Proposition 8 convinced even non-believers with utterly fallacious claims that children would be corrupted because schools would be forced to teach about homosexuality, and that ministers would be jailed for refusing to perform same-sex marriages. Proponents, who allowed the advocates to control the debate to the point where they were afraid to even mention homosexuality, offered only timid abstract arguments about “fairness” and “equality.” I’m afraid your well-reasoned article is about as effective as the well-reasoned arguments of Proposition 8 opponents.

It might be more effective to point out, for example, that the TSA aids the terrorists’ efforts with each intrusive reactive hassle they (inconsistently) impose on travelers. Mohammed Atta and his gang of Islamo-fascist thugs ended their plot on 9/11 and are safely roasting in Hell, but their mass disruption continues to this day at checkpoints that might as well be their everlasting memorials. The London plotters failed to even come close to blowing up any airplanes, and will spend the rest of their lives rotting and forgotten in a British prison. But they have nonetheless spectacularly succeeded in permanently inflicting on millions of passengers every day stupid rules and restrictions that even the TSA acknowledges is a “pain point.” And should some other terrorists (or terrorist-wannabees) attempt a new tactic, even unsuccessfully or implausibly, we can count on the TSA to react with a new and permanent boneheaded impediment to travel.

Perhaps terrorists are astute enough to realize that they need no longer take the effort and expense of plotting a spectacular act of destruction. They merely need to periodically come up with spurious plots that will induce the Homeland Security bureaucrats to permanently institute poorly-conceived reactive measures that pointlessly burden the public. Why go to the trouble of recruiting “martyrs” to commit spectacular suicide when it’s so much easier to let our own “security” apparatus destroy us from within through a death of a thousand cuts?

Yes, that’s the same thing as “refuse to be terrorized.” But it appeals more directly to the lizard-brain.

George November 13, 2009 11:11 AM

HJohn, it may not make rational sense to incur the distressingly common risk of driving out of fear of the extremely unlikely risk of terrorists hijacking an airplane.

However, driving to avoid the increasing hassles and discomfort of flying might make perfect sense. There’s more to “risk assessment” than comparing the numerical risk to life and limb.

foosion November 13, 2009 11:15 AM

Speaking of the Olympics, I have always been amazed at the security set up as a reaction to the bomb at the Atlanta Olympics. The reaction was counterproductive, which goes beyond security theater.

They set up metal detectors at event entrances, then had large numbers of people stand in snaked lines so that people were much more tightly packed on the security lines than they were in the stadiums. Another bomb would have killed a lot more people on the security lines than in the stadium, because of the much higher number of people per square foot in the lines.

HJohn November 13, 2009 11:16 AM

George, I was speaking of people who drive instead of fly because of their fear of terrorists. I’m aware, of course, that people have other reasons for choosing not to fly.

Nice “all conservatives are bad, all liberals are good” tangent by the way.

billswift November 13, 2009 11:26 AM

That humans over-respond to stories is a common theme on Overcoming Bias and Less Wrong (a piece from last weekend for example ). The rest of this comment is part of my response to that post:

You can’t not think in terms of stories, that is simply how our minds work. All you can do is to try to keep that (in the form of “intuition”) from preventing the adequate weighing of statistics, probabilities, and explicit evidence that can’t easily be fit into narratives.

George November 13, 2009 12:59 PM

HJohn, I don’t mean to imply that four legs are good and two legs or bad. Or the same for “liberals” and “conservatives,” labels that really don’t mean anything any more.

Rather, if those who oppose the self-proclaimed “conservatives” want to be heard, they unfortunately will have to adopt the successful tactics the “conservatives” have employed to seize control of the agenda. The unfortunate fact is that Americans have lost their ability to think and reason, and respond only to simplistic slogans repeated endlessly. The cerebral cortex has been disconnected. Only the lizard-brain remains. And the “conservatives” are masters at arousing the lizard-brains of Americans to their cause.

Clive Robinson November 13, 2009 1:03 PM

With regards US deaths on the road,

The figures quoted where about twice that I have been shown before (~27K) which is so,mewhat comparable to the UK after population size normaliosation.

I was quite surprised to see a figure that is effectivly twice that.

George November 13, 2009 1:07 PM

foosion, this is also a worrisome inherent problem with airport screening. A terrorist no longer has to think up ways around the stupid rules on liquids and shoes. He need merely join the long slow-moving queue of sheeple waiting in their stockinged feet at the checkpoint, yell “Allahu Akbar!,” detonate his explosive vest, and then meet his allotted 72 virgins. Far easier than hijacking an airplane.

I worry about this built-in vulnerability every time I stand in a TSA checkpoint queue, and it would seem obvious to anyone who spends half a second thinking about it. But the TSA seems utterly oblivious to it. Their definition of “security” seems too narrow to offer any useful protection from anything.

HJohn November 13, 2009 1:20 PM

@George: “He need merely join the long slow-moving queue of sheeple waiting in their stockinged feet at the checkpoint, yell “Allahu Akbar!,” detonate his explosive vest, and then meet his allotted 72 virgins. Far easier than hijacking an airplane.”

Sure, they could do this. They could also do it in a mall, movie theatre, or classroom.

I think part of the appeal of airplanes is their mobility. Blowing up themselves in a line may scare travelers, but maybe not people who don’t travel. The thought that a plane could kill you whenever you are.

Of course, that wasn’t the main appeal. The appeal was to use them as missiles because truck bombs failed at their goal (WTC destruction).

Terrorists used planes while WTC security was worried about vehicles. While our government is focusing too much on airline travel, future terrorists will try something else, as Bruce frequently and correctly says.

dr2chase November 13, 2009 1:54 PM

“Even 9/11 failed to kill as many people as automobiles do in the US every single month.”

It’s worse than that, and the cars themselves represent their own little safety ritual; the lack of exercise that they encourage is much more deadly than car crashes. (Cycling safety/fitness statistics suggest a factor in the range of 30x — since cycling is 3-5x as crash-dangerous per mile as driving, but the health benefits of cycling are estimated at 10-20x greater than the crash-risks, in terms of years of life lost/saved. From “Cycling: Towards Health and Safety BMA, Oxford University Press, 1992” )

Flu stats are also instructive — viral terrorists are much more deadly than car crashes.

Clive Robinson November 13, 2009 2:10 PM

@ AppSec,

“I’m wondering how many here would think that “DR” is “security theater” for businesses. Aren’t those based on “movie plot” and rare instances?”

Yes they are quite often based on “movie plot” type issues.

But… Importantly they are not being used as “security theater”.

The difference is subtal which is why we are in the mess we are.

DR is a response to an event, what the DHS et al are trying to do is prevention.

The thing about a response is you think up all the events you can and then abstract out the effects to a meaningfull set of problems.

For instance does it matter how the local electricity substation gets taken out (lightning, car crash, aircraft crash, space debris, bomb, overload, etc, etc) the result is effectivly the same so DR mitigates this with UPS.

On the other hanmd “security theater” builds a mountin over the top and puts 200 armed gaurds on it…

DR is what the DHS et al should be doing, in the same way that “fire drill” works for earthquakes and other significant events. That is a fire is arealistic expectation and the drills are a legal requirment, including the tiny extra bit for other more rare events has negligable extra cost.

One of the more well known accounts of 9/11 was the bod who had made a “pain in the BTM” of himself ensuring that his organisation religiously did fire drills. The result on the day was that nearly all the people in that company got out alive and well.

Preparing for classess of event is good value for money. Trying to prevent every event is stupid as it cannot be done with an active adversary. They will always look for what you have not covered and attack it.

Therefore “reaction/response” training is good TSA type “prevention” activity is worse than pointless.

AppSec November 13, 2009 2:41 PM

@Clive: I see your point on the response and that to a degree is correct..

However.. If there’s a natural disaster/space debris in my locale (which is generally where the data center is going to be), the last thing that I am going to be worried about is the business.

Where as if there is a terrorist taking over a plan and crashing it into a building, the first thing I am going to be worried about is: where else is this occuring and am I in danger now. (and if you want to say: it depends on your location, then my response is: what about any hikers that were in Central PA on 9/11?)

HJohn November 13, 2009 2:43 PM

@Clive Robinson: Yes they are quite often based on “movie plot” type issues.”

We have two main offices over 200 miles apart, and we also have several smaller offices. I once had an auditor ask me we he was reviewing BCP “what would happen if nuclear bombs went off simultaneously and destroyed both main offices.

My response was that 95% of our employees and half the state’s population would be too dead to care.

I don’t mind blowing the whistle on some of my brethren for absurdity. 🙂

Rowan November 14, 2009 8:24 AM

Thank you for writing clearly and concisely what I have been thinking for years.
Btw, you do Londoners too much credit. Politically motivated fear-mongering and security theatre is endemic in the UK too.

Marek November 14, 2009 1:55 PM

@hjohn — another appeal would be the “fire in the sky” karma element of justice. from dresden to nagasaki to shock and awe, from big boys to drones, we’re all about fire in the sky.

Pete November 15, 2009 1:52 AM

George wrote, “Unfortunately, a reasoned argument like yours can never compete with the sort of appeal to the lizard-brain that the Homeland Security folks and their bosses have so successfully deployed. That’s something “conservatives” learned long ago from their Fascist cousins…”

The historical fallacy that conservativism and fascism are ideological neighbors is one of the greatest academic and cultural frauds perpetuated by the far left. If you place traditional small government conservatism on a continuum, it lies to the left of libertarianism, which is in turn to the left of anarchy, the lack of any government control whatever. Fascism requires a giant state whose influence reaches into everything, true conservatives (no, GWB was not one) abhor big government of any kind, and distrust overly-large or powerful businesses as well. Next on the continuum are big-government GOPers/centrists, moderate liberal progressivism, hard left socialism, communism, and fascism. We arrive thereby at total government control of everything; the opposite of anarchy.

If you are open-minded enough to do so, read Jonah Goldberg’s book “Liberal Fascism.”

BTW, I agree that the mandarins at DHS are lizard brains, we can most definitely agree on that one. GWB was a fool for starting that, and the many Dems in the Congress who voted for it, were too.

Clive Robinson November 15, 2009 5:52 AM

@ Pete,

“If you place traditional small government conservatism on a continuum, it lies to the left of libertarianism, which is in turn to the left of anarchy…”

Some would argue that it is not a “continuum” that has two ends but a circle where there are no ends.

Others would argue the positions by different aspects of the way the various political ideals behave.

For instance to the people at the bottom of the heap political oppression be it by the extream left or right is the same and thus interchangable (hence the circle).

Likewise the claims that we live in a democracy by our “political Lords and Masters”.

The simple fact is we live in what is cutely called “representational democracy” which is not democracy in any way shape or form. Once every few years we go through a process of selecting those that are (suppopsadly) going to represent us.

The simple fact is we have no control over these representatives and their porcine behaviour (Pork / Snouts in the…)

Ask yourself a simple question when have you ever voted on an issue (ie a referendum)?

And then if still not convinced ask yourself when you jhave ever seen “None of the above” on a ballot paper?

And just to confirm the point in the UK we had some local elections where the ballot count was equal for two candidates, how did the “returning officer” decide which one got the job?

Simple he broke a couple of pencils up of different lengths and the candidates chose. A nice simple “short straw” selection another wrote win on a piece of paper and lose on another put them in envolopes and again the candidates chose… Is that democracy at work or just drawing cards to win the pot?

Arno November 15, 2009 6:27 AM

Well, I would think successful terrorist attacks are not especially hard for competent people (e.g. really experienced engineers) willing to sacrifice a lot. However, it seems same competent people typically realize the ineffectiveness of this strategy, its ethical problems and moreover may not want to make the needed sacrifice.

At least the typical terrorists are somewere between idiot level and medium competence level at best. Even the 9/11 terrorists nearly got caught several times and only the incompetence on the other side saved their mission. For example one elementary mistake they made was noticeable disinteresst in landing a plane, which I would count as a beginners mistake in camouflage design. After all this is one of the two most important manouvres with an airplane. Individuals like the Unabomber seem to be the very rare exception, combining partial insanity and a high competence level.

Oldpilot November 15, 2009 7:18 AM

You guys are wonderful. You have to take off your shoes at the airport, and you whine that ‘the terrorists have won’. Is a society like the one you want to live in really worth preserving? Blue skies! — Dan Ford

Arno November 15, 2009 9:16 AM

@Oldpilot: It is not about taking off shoes. It is about 90-100% of the damage of a terrorist attack being done but the reaction to it. That is really, really stupid and has gone so far that even the most incompetent terrorists can now do a lot of damage. After all the ultimate goals of terrorism are gettying attention and creating fear and not actual direct damage. Currently, it is like the “defenders” play for the other team.

HJohn November 15, 2009 10:33 AM

@Marek: “hjohn — another appeal would be the “fire in the sky” karma element of justice. from dresden to nagasaki to shock and awe, from big boys to drones, we’re all about fire in the sky.”

Which compels me to ask… what in the world did I say that your post could possibly be responding to?

Brent November 15, 2009 2:10 PM

Given the apparent innateness of the fear response, perhaps Bruce and others need to look at Security Theatre a little differently. Telling people not to overreact to unlikely threats is like saying the answer to any problem is education and training. (IT people realise the futility of such assertions.)

Perhaps Security Theatre needs to be thought of as a necessity, with the real task that leaders are faced with is how to provide effective security theatre at at an affordable cost to the public. That sounds like a win-win, and you don’t have to try to mass educate people on how to counter their natural feelilngs (which won’t work).

Bruce Schneier November 15, 2009 3:00 PM

“Perhaps Security Theatre needs to be thought of as a necessity, with the real task that leaders are faced with is how to provide effective security theatre at at an affordable cost to the public. That sounds like a win-win, and you don’t have to try to mass educate people on how to counter their natural feelilngs (which won’t work).”

This is what I was trying to get to in my essay.

moo November 15, 2009 6:03 PM

@Oldpilot: “Is a society like the one you want to live in really worth preserving?”

Apparently not. We had it a few decades ago, and we have allowed covetous leaders to slowly strip it away from us.

TJ November 16, 2009 12:53 AM

I am in concurrence with the tone of this article but I think it misses an important point. You write that we should essentially not be afraid and put the damage and death in perspective so as not to overspend on security theatre you make a good point but remember all those bureaucrats are responding to the population.

A demonstration of indominability and resilience is not common to our current societal habit. From serial killers to school shooters to poison halloween candy we have an established nature of wanting to see something done.

Some off the wall suggestions
With the money spent on new security procedures we could have:
-Built in an astonishing time frame an exact duplication of the WTC and crowned it with the worlds largest middle finger.
-swear in on September 11, 2002 the 299,930th new immigrant as a symbolic but meaningful 100 fold demonstration of the futility of the operation. As a bonus it could be arranged that it be a female muslim army officer.

These are obviously not well thought out and off the cuff but I think you get the drift.

Marek November 16, 2009 12:39 PM


just responding to your observations of appeal, and suggesting another appeal:

“I think part of the appeal of airplanes”

“Of course, that wasn’t the main appeal. The appeal was”


Marek November 16, 2009 9:30 PM


and this afternoon I found similar thoughts about fire in the sky in less apocalyptic imagery

Jean Rosenfeld calls it “measured reciprocity” in her response to Charles Cameron’s “Speak the Languages, Know the Modes of Thought” post on

“Measured reciprocity is a concept that bin Ladin takes from his interpretation of the Quran and applies to his heterodox millennial revolutionary movement, al-Qaida. It is expressed in numerous speeches and other doucuments we have from him.”

As Charles Cameron quotes Bin Laden: “just as you lay waste to our Nation, so shall we lay waste to yours” echoing Qur’an 2.194. … “Which powerfully reinforces the idea that bin Laden views his jihad against the US in terms of measured reciprocity — a notion which should give us pause every time we take an action which we would not choose to have taken against us…”

I view one of the appeals of airplanes as bombs is that it reflects a measured reciprocal payback for the airborne/drone-borne chaos we have visited on Iraq/Afghanistan and others for quite some time.

Benn Gleck November 17, 2009 5:47 PM

The only thing that will bring you people to your senses is if Osama Bin Laden were to launch another nice, big, spectacular attack on America. That is something we all need right now.

Osama? Osama, where are yoooouuu…

Fergal Murray November 21, 2009 5:18 AM

Nice essay, Bruce. Airport security theatre since 9-11 always seemed like a waste of money to me, because 9-11-type attacks can never be repeated.

Since all passengers now assume that the outcome of hijack is death, the reflex response to an attempted hijack will be to fight. No weapon that can be smuggled onto a plane is sufficient to subdue the other passengers, and being ripped apart by an angry mob is an inglorious outcome for the terrorist.

We can be reasonably certain that aircraft are now an unlikely terrorist target.


TL November 21, 2009 8:21 AM

Quite an article to belive in… that is if you are one of the sheeple that believe in all this tripe.

Wakeup!! This is the real world, where anything can be explained away by lackeys like yourself that keep the masses calm while the big picture is left alone.

Are you a Socialist, and how much did the Obama administration pay you to print these lies?

Andersson November 17, 2010 10:04 PM

Seeing the security measures implemented in the USA, I just hope they don’t spread to my country in Europe. My country is very stable and safe and I really really do not want the American way of thinking to have much influence here on this topic.

I visited our Parliament building and I had to go through a security check-point in which I had to empty my pockets and go through a scanner… I also had to leave some of my stuff in a locker. It did feel unnecessary to me. This procedure was added after 9/11.

Furthermore, I visited the UK and walked around their Parliament building and they had put some really ugly barricades around it. They have more reason to fear a terrorist attack but that looked like serious over-reaction as well.

Garlin June 7, 2011 8:02 AM

If the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are the Citizens’ protection from the Government, then individual Government Officials, purportedly have broken fundamental laws of this Democratic Republic. Why doesn”t the DOJ bring them to account and be imprisoned? This seems to be a treasonable act(s).

Arya Bagherpour July 6, 2011 12:16 AM

It is so nice to read an article that calmly addresses the issue of terrorism. Instead of wild individual-right busting solutions, we simply express liberty and those other attributes we claim to praise as a nation. That coupled with smart application of security is what actually makes us safer.

Bravo. It is so nice to hear sensible security policy.

Coward April 5, 2013 4:13 AM

@Brandioch “How effective would it be to warn your children not to get into a red 2003 Ford Taurus with a dark-haired man?”

It’s more effective than you’d think. My parents always gave me that exact advice, and to this day I’ve only been brutally murdered five, maybe six times. Forty six times, if you count the two days I spent in Detroit that one time.

Coward (same coward) April 5, 2013 4:50 AM

@TL “Are you a Socialist, and how much did the Obama administration pay you to print these lies?”

You bring up a number of good points, here. I mean, how could we trust a socialist? Socialism is synonymous with evil, after all. And evil is bad.

Plus, how can we trust Scneier, a security expert highly respected by everyone else in his field, to give an accurate portrayal of what makes sense in security? Why shouldn’t we, instead, put our faith in the guy who makes unfounded accusations in the comment thread of Schneier’s blog?

@Garlin “Why doesn”t the DOJ bring them to account and be imprisoned?”

Because that would be insane, guy who Randomly Capitalizes certain Nouns?

There’s a reason the Department of Justice doesn’t defer to you on who ought to go to prison. But, since I don’t want to ruin all the fun, I’ll let you figure out what that reason might be. You have my permission to ask the other children for hints.

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