Australian Security Theater

I like the quote at the end of this excerpt:

Aviation officials have questioned the need for such a strong permanent police presence at airports, suggesting they were there simply “to make the government look tough on terror”.

One senior executive said in his experience, the officers were expensive window-dressing.

“When you add the body scanners, the ritual humiliation of old ladies with knitting needles and the farcical air marshals, it all adds up to billions of dollars to prevent what? A politician being called soft on terror, that’s what,” he said.

Posted on March 19, 2012 at 6:38 AM38 Comments


Mark Newton March 19, 2012 7:27 AM

Connelly: “Terrorists in general have had a strong focus on the aviation sector over the last 11 years.”

Relly? Exactly how many Australian terrorist incidents have there been over the last 11 years, and how many of those involved aviation?

(hint: 0 and 0)

It’s fashionable for the Australian authorities to be paranoid about terrorism because the American authorities are paranoid about terrorism and Australia typically apes whatever the Americans are doing.

The actual threat? Negligible.

  • mark

tqft March 19, 2012 7:37 AM

I would read the link but I have banned thecouriermail. Is my local paper and it isn’t worth the paper or recycled electrons.

Agree with the sentiment, but the reporting can not be trusted.

RobertT March 19, 2012 7:45 AM

Australian airport security is truly farcical.
My favorite is the complete ban on duty free bottles being bought onto Australian bound flights, what s joke. I’m regularly in HK when some old lady buys a bottle of Scotch and finds out half an hour later that she cant take it on the plane to Australia. I believe it is part of the Macquarie Airports Management bonus plan, security theater and capitalism at its best

Clive Robinson March 19, 2012 8:05 AM

@ Malcolm Groves,

In addition, despite their “visible presence” they weren’t around to stop probably the biggest incident at an probably the biggest incident at an Australian Airport in recent years

Yes the incedent of the “hells angels/bikers/bikies” made it in the news around the other side of the world at the time.

The point is that attacks that are “just” landside cannot be easily stopped because of the speed they occur, and can be all over by the time security personnel/forces get there.

In Scotland you may remember they had a couple of home grown “nutters” who built a fire in a car with gas canisters on it and drove it into the terminal building, where it was not the security forces or emergancy services that dealt with them first but the members of the public in the immediate area of the attack.

And this is a point that keeps being made, the public are the target, and if the public fight back the harm is generaly small.

Whilst I don’t disaprove of the public biting back, I’m very much against the idea of “militia” security forces who go “tooled up” in one way or another as generaly that has very undesirable consequences not just limited to collateral damage but protection racketeering etc (as effectivly demonstrated by the TSA et al).

kingsnake March 19, 2012 8:24 AM

You look at the staff at a typical airport “security” point, and most of them would not be able to stop a shoplifting at K-Mart let alone a cabal of high-tech globe-trotting WMD-totting terrorists. (Or even a confused kid with a grenade in his shorts.) I’d rather directly pay them welfare, than do it in the guise of “security” …

Jonathan Wilson March 19, 2012 9:56 AM

Wow, I think hell just froze over, there was actually a GOOD article in a Murdoch paper…
As for the security theater, if we (we in this case being the governments of the western world) stopped spending so much money on security theater and body scanners and liquid restrictions and all the other useless crap and instead spent that money on actual genuine intelligence gathering (including hiring more of the people with the skills needed to filter the mountains of data the intelligence agencies have and turn it into useful information), things would be better off.

HiTechHiTouch March 19, 2012 10:32 AM

@Mark Newton @lazlo — one definition of division by zero is that the result is infinite.

Therefore ALL Australian terrorist activities involved the aviation sector.

Opps… Shouldn’t have given some bureaucrat another way of using funny math to justify something…

mcb March 19, 2012 10:55 AM

@ SnallaBolaget

“And here I thought you liked air marshals, Bruce. What’s up with that?”

Don’t know about the Australian programme but the US FAMS costs $786 million a year and have never engaged a terrorist, unless you count a mentally disordered fellow killed on a jetway while attempting to reboard the flight he’d arrived on. Some of their professional and personal excesses have been made public Deterrence is the fuzziest of the variables we can plug in to the ROI calculation, but zero saves for ~$7 billion spent since 9/11 is pretty seriously bad by any measure used outside the Beltway.

NobodySpecial March 19, 2012 11:25 AM

After some alert in America the UK put tanks at Heathrow.
Tanks! Exactly what sort of in-flight terrorism is a tank supposed to stop?

Although when a politician was questioned about the role of the tanks – he claimed they weren’t tanks – they were ‘tracked armoured reconnaissance vehicles’

Snarki, child of Loki March 19, 2012 11:35 AM

@NobodySpecial :
“After some alert in America the UK put tanks at Heathrow.
Tanks! Exactly what sort of in-flight terrorism is a tank supposed to stop?”

You’re not looking at it correctly.

#1: Airline security requires FLYING tanks.
#2: imagine, for a moment, exactly HOW MUCH MONEY flying tanks would cost.

Scared March 19, 2012 1:41 PM

@NobodySpecial “they were ‘tracked armoured reconnaissance vehicles'”

And they are painted in camouflage colors so the terrorists don’t notice them.

Jon March 19, 2012 6:09 PM

@ NobodySpecial
“Although when a politician was questioned about the role of the tanks – he claimed they weren’t tanks – they were ‘tracked armoured reconnaissance vehicles'”

Technically, he’s right. They were ‘tracked armoured reconnaissance vehicles’, and not ‘tanks’. But, of course, that is completely beside the point , as the politician presumably well knew. They could have instead parked HMS Ocean, or a single squaddie with a slingshot, and it would have amounted to the same thing: obvious theatre with no security.

I can imagine the crews of the Scimitars parked at Heathrow chatting over their intercoms. Those guys aren’t stupid, and soldiers have a highly developed instinct for, and detestation of, being dicked around.

“Sarge, wot the fook are we supposed to do with this fooking cannon then?”

“You know as well as I do, Smith. The boss told us to come down here and ‘provide security’. So, here we are, providing security.”

“‘Provide security’? Wot fooking security? Are you telling me we can start arcing up with the Rarden if some nonce starts looking a bit shifty?”

“No, Smith, we can’t do that. Our ROEs are quite restrictive, and anyway we don’t have any ammo.

“What if we see some fooking chav, double parked – can we run him and his rice rocket over?”

“No Smith. We aren’t allowed to run anybody or anything over. I asked about that too.”

“So we just sit here like toy fooking soldiers then?”

“Yes, Smith, we sit here like toy soldiers. Providing ‘security.'”

“Fooking ‘ell. Oh well, ‘oo wants a cuppa then?”

NE Patriot March 19, 2012 7:23 PM

To the point made that the bulk of their work was checking unattended bags left outside lavatories, I’ll just say this:
Most of the time your local fire brigade heads out on a run for a fire alarm, the call turns out to be false, or at best, food on the stove or some such minor incident. From personal experience staffing an ambulance, about 3/4 of our calls were scheduled patient transports (going from hospital/nursing home to a hospital or clinic, and back again) and of the 1/4 that was an emergency call, about 9/10 of them were exceedingly minor incidents. A vanishingly small number of calls were for someone well and truly in deep trouble.
Hearing that the bulk of a security force’s calls are for mundane incidents is actually a good thing: I can’t imagine what would chaos would be our reality if the intended capacities of an airport security force were needed even once a month. I don’t think that kind of reality exists even in S. Central LA, NYC, or any other well-known hotspot.
(NB: All criticisms about the validity of having said security force are aside from the above argument.)

Andrew March 19, 2012 7:41 PM

We certainly don’t want to give the security screeners full police powers. Physical search is invasive enough. Real Police (TM) should be nearby with a good response time, but there’s no need to waste good cops on screening duties.

Also note: we can either fight the War on Drugs or the War on Terror. Pick one.

“I swear, I thought the guy was paying me to smuggle dope! I had no idea there was a bomb hidden in the hash!”

NobodySpecial March 19, 2012 9:59 PM

@tom – yes that sounds exactly like army or at least engineering units.

We did some trials of some equipment on Salisbury plane with some armoured units.
A favourite trick was to fill empty beer cans with water and as tired, hot, thirsty and hungry infantry slogged past they would take the ‘beer’ out of the cooler and drink them.

“Another cold beer sergeant ?”
“Thank you -is there any cake left and is the barbeque ready?”

tensor March 19, 2012 11:43 PM

…it all adds up to billions of dollars to prevent what? A politician being called soft on terror, that’s what,” he said.

I stand in such awe of this comment, sir, I can do but to recycle an old joke in response:

Does the speaker not understand the penalties for revealing a state secret?

Daniel March 20, 2012 2:18 AM

“A politician being called soft on terror”

What does it say about our democracy, though, that politicians fear being called soft on terror. Politicians fear it for a good reason; they want to keep their jobs. I await the day when the politician with the ‘weak guy’ image wins the election.

Every bully knows that it doesn’t matter which of the geeks you bully, so long as you bully enough of them to keep your reputation up.

NZ March 20, 2012 2:59 AM


What exactly is the difference between a “tracked armoured reconnaissance vehicle” and a “light tank”?

Mark March 20, 2012 4:26 AM

I remember being barked at in Sydney airport because I forgot I had a 700ml bottle of water in my carryon bag, because it’s so damn hot there in summer.

It’s such a pity the Aussie politicians have followed the American lead, such a waste of money. Even worse, is that New Zealand has too (I am from NZ), although we did have some mentally ill immigrant try to ‘hijack’ a small plane a few years back.

Look at the threats… as someone else has said, “How many aviation terrorist attacks have there been in the last 11 years?”.


SnallaBolaget March 20, 2012 5:22 AM

@Sophia Katt
That link is to My Fox… probably says it all right there, but the video it’s about is nothing like how it’s described by this “enraged father” who watched his son apparently being f***ed in the a$$ by the TSA.
In fact, the kid in the video doesn’t even seem to give a damn, a when the father repeats “It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay” like a maniac, the kid looks at him like he’s more scared of his dad than whatever the TSA guy is doing to the wheelchair.

Just another idiot trying to get some attention by bashing the TSA – which is fine as long as you’ve actually got something, but this is just another one trying to get some hype by clinging onto Corbett.

Solsa March 20, 2012 6:42 AM

I often pass through my local airport, Hobart, on business trips to the mainland. It is a tiny, peaceful airport but every single time I get on or off a plane, there is an armed policeman, sometimes two, just near where we enter or exit the terminal building (Hobart is too small to have air bridges, we have to walk across the tarmac to the plane). Even if there are only 40 people getting off the flight. Always male, always armed and dressed in pseudo action clothes, not straight police uniform. Rarely see them at large airports but at Hobart they are desperate to show us how secure we are. That one policeman is going to prevent any terrorist attack, no matter what, all by himself. I still find it ludicrous after several years of making these trips.

Several years ago, maybe 10, there was a fuss in the newspapers about our regional airports not being secure enough, allowing terrorists to bypass security simply by boarding a plane at a small airport. The political response was to install all these superfluous armed guards.

There is no question that airports need police just like any other public space. The stupidity comes from the vastly inflated staffing ratios for purely political purposes. Either our politicians are unable to sell the concept of security with fewer armed police, and/or our citizenry are too stupid to work it out for themselves and so need the (ahem!) security blanket.

Saul March 20, 2012 7:07 AM

Is this any different than the machine-gun-toting National Guardsmen we have looking tough at Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal in New York? I’ve always wondered how their machine guns were going to take down the suicide bomber after he’s already detonated himself. The only benefit — if you can call it that — I see of their presence it that it makes the public feel safe. But if the goal is to deter bombings — and that seems to be the main focus of transportation security these days — are they really an effective deterrent against someone who has resigned to killing themselves anyway?

Jon March 20, 2012 8:38 PM

@ NZ, March 20, 2012 2:59 AM
“What exactly is the difference between a “tracked armoured reconnaissance vehicle” and a “light tank”?”

In this context? Practically nothing. But it is pedantically and semantically true that the Scimitars deployed to Heathrow were “tracked armoured reconnaissance vehicles”, not “tanks”. Tanks are what the Chinese use in these types of situations. Because the West, as I’m sure you well know, behaves oh so much better than them.

Mind you, given that it’s somewhat unlikely that the 3rd Soviet Shock Army was suddenly going to surge out of the arrivals terminal, it could reasonably be argued that a CVR(T) presents somewhat more of a threat to civilians than a Chally 2 would.

Gordon March 21, 2012 2:05 PM

You know what? This is a classic principal-agent scenario. Politicians, who are supposed to act in the public interest, have noticed that they can get elected by being “tough on terror”. Trouble is, the public isn’t served by the “tough on terror” that is practiced nowadays, but politicians have managed to sell it to the public.

I am sufficiently old to remember genuine terrorist incidents, bombs, abductions of public figures, airplane hijackings, and the worst thing that happened was Wanted posters at police stations and town halls.

The real question is how to get out of this particular equilibrium that has brought us the ballsac grabbers and the shoe dance every time anyone must take an airplane.

George March 21, 2012 3:34 PM

I had read that TSA administrator John Pistole has appointed himself the World’s Airport Security Dictator. He has made a priority of bullying security officials in other countries into setting up their own clones of the TSA, with the same arrogant and inconsistent application of reactive rules and procedures.

Politicians and bureaucrats afraid of being branded “soft on terrorism” and/or blamed for future attacks are probably quite amenable to Pistole-whipping, regardless of whether it serves the public. If something goes wrong they can just say they were following the orders they got from the TSA. Since the TSA has made itself impervious to any blame or criticism, the buck doesn’t stop anywhere but simply disappears.

sabik March 23, 2012 9:13 PM

@Mark Newton, @lazlo, @HiTechHiTouch, as far as I recall there actually has been an Australian terrorist incident, so we don’t need to divide by zero, and it didn’t involve aviation, so we end up with 0/1 = 0%.

(Look up “2004 Australian embassy bombing”. The Australian embassy was fine, so I guess that’s a victory for security.)

Codger March 25, 2012 10:35 PM

Politicians, who are supposed to act in the public interest, have noticed that they can get elected by being “tough on terror”.

Doesn’t that suggest a less comfortable villian?

How’s about we stop rewarding craven behavior and demand better in exchange for our votes?

C’mon, nobody here voted for any of the congresscritters who voted to pass or renew the USA-PATRIOT act? Somebody sure did!

NZ March 27, 2012 7:47 AM


Actually, my question was more general: is there a profound difference between CVR(T)s and light tanks or are they more like proper nouns?

jeremy March 28, 2012 11:16 AM

@sabik: “as far as I recall there actually has been an Australian terrorist incident”…

…in Jakarta.

Sk April 6, 2012 3:11 AM

@Mark Newton et al
I’ll be the first to agree that airport security practices in Australia and elsewhere in the world are in desperate need of a sanity check, but if you all get over your very trendy terror-policy-bashing you’d actually remember (as they have been reported in the media extensively) that there have been several, quite significant, terror incident in Australia over the past 10 years, even the past 6-8. The fact that nothing went bang is directly related to the fact that there were alot of people working to ensure that they were not successful.
I can’t think of one related to Aviation off the top of my head, but there is something in the back of my mind telling me there was a failed one similar to the shoe or underwear type bombers.

Also, while there is a much greater Police presence at Australian airports now than there was, say, 5 years ago, most of the uniforms you see there are protective security officers.

You are all 100% correct in saying that much of this is pointless theater, however in most cases this is just a coincidence as it’s highly unlikely most people commenting here know enough about the real factors that lead to policy decisions to generate an informed opinion.

What’s amusing to me is that most of the commenters on this blog are identical to callers on a 2-bit shock jock’s radio show, despite their generally inverted political views, and their self-image that they are the polar opposite of those people.

Clive Robinson April 6, 2012 5:57 AM

@ Sk,

… however in most case this is just a coincidence as it’s highly unlikely most people commenting here know enough about the real factors that lead to policy decisions to generate an informed opinion.

What you have said is in effect a straw man argument.

As you should be well aware most “political decisions” are made in secret by often self interested parties. Thus any choice they make has little chance of being rational from other peoples perspective.

Even at the lower levels decisions are usualy made by people with a considerable self interest.

Look at it this way from a parasites point of view it’s rational to kill the host to protect it’s future and that of it’s successors. From the hosts point of view killing the parasite before the parasite kills is the rational choice to protect the hosts future and that of it’s successors.

Which is where the “Kill or be killed” maxim of war and civil unrest comes from. However as we know there is another alternative which is symbiotic relationsships. That is where the parasite feeds of the host but in return gives the host a benifit.

The question then becomes at what point does the benift change the relationship from parasitic to symbiotic and is it a real symbiotic relationship or a faux symbiotic relationship where the relationship is still very much parasitic from an external observers perspective but the host believes incorrectly it is getting a worthwhile benifit whilst still suffering considerable harm.

Based on the scant evidence available the benift of the likes of the TSA is increadably small (some would say immeasurably so) whilst the harm is considerable and easily and rationaly measurabled.

Thus the argument is that the relationship based on measurable data is most definatly parasitic.

And please don’t argue the “If you knew what we know” argument that various defence and intelligence organisations use to try to increase their appropriations from the politicians. It’s another “self interested argument” that usually fails the rationality test.

The simple fact is politicions get tax revenue that they are supposed to use for the “comman good” however the tax by and large comes from entities (companies etc) that supposadly have no say in the matter. By and large most politicians have no clue as too what is and is not in the “common good” of the “voters” they supposadly represent, thus they are reliant on others to tell them.

Which unfortunatly means that those with supposadly no vote but plenty of financial resources can influance a politicians perspective rather more than those with votes but few financial resources. Even if those with financial ressources cannot get directly at the politicians they can still get at the politicians advisors. And even where they cannot get directly at the advisors they can usually manipulate the data the advisors get to see.

All of which we see exposed with regular monotony by the presss and others. All of which makes the politicos and their advisors keep as much information hidden as possible.

Which when applied to your point,

as it’s highly unlikely most people commenting here know enough about the real factors that lead to policy decisions to generate an informed opinion

Suggest that the “real factors” are not rational but self interested and almost certainly based on somebodies desire to get an appropriation from the tax take that is not for “the common good” of the voters.

And if that is indeed the case as many believe then the “real factors” you talk of actually have no bearing on the rational arguments involved with deciding if the number of security personnel is appropriate or not. And thus make your argument likewise have no bearing on the argument.

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