Unsafe Security: A Sociologist Aptly Analyzes our Failures in Top-Down Protection

By Bruce Schneier
Reason
January 2013

Against Security: How We Go Wrong at Airports, Subways, and Other Sites of Ambiguous Danger, by Harvey Molotch, Princeton University Press, 278 pages, $35.

Security is both a feeling and a reality, and the two are different things. People can feel secure when they’re actually not, and they can be secure even when they believe otherwise.

This discord explains much of what passes for our national discourse on security policy. Security measures often are nothing more than security theater, making people feel safer without actually increasing their protection.

A lot of psychological research has tried to make sense out of security, fear, risk, and safety. But however fascinating the academic literature is, it often misses the broader social dynamics. New York University’s Harvey Molotch helpfully brings a sociologist’s perspective to the subject in his new book Against Security.

Molotch delves deeply into a few examples and uses them to derive general principles. He starts Against Security with a mundane topic: the security of public restrooms. It’s a setting he knows better than most, having authored Toilet: The Public Restroom and the Politics of Sharing (New York University Press) in 2010. It turns out the toilet is not a bad place to begin a discussion of the sociology of security.

People fear various things in public restrooms: crime, disease, embarrassment. Different cultures either ignore those fears or address them in culture-specific ways. Many public lavatories, for example, have no-touch flushing mechanisms, no-touch sinks, no-touch towel dispensers, and even no-touch doors, while some Japanese commodes play prerecorded sounds of water running, to better disguise the embarrassing tinkle.

Restrooms have also been places where, historically and in some locations, people could do drugs or engage in gay sex. Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) was arrested in 2007 for soliciting sex in the bathroom at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, suggesting that such behavior is not a thing of the past. To combat these risks, the managers of some bathrooms—men’s rooms in American bus stations, in particular—have taken to removing the doors from the toilet stalls, forcing everyone to defecate in public to ensure that no one does anything untoward (or unsafe) behind closed doors.

Subsequent chapters discuss security in subways, at airports, and on airplanes; at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan; and after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Each of these chapters is an interesting sociological discussion of both the feeling and reality of security, and all of them make for fascinating reading. Molotch has clearly done his homework, conducting interviews on the ground, asking questions designed to elicit surprising information.

Molotch demonstrates how complex and interdependent the factors that comprise security are. Sometimes we implement security measures against one threat, only to magnify another. He points out that more people have died in car crashes since 9/11 because they were afraid to fly—or because they didn’t want to deal with airport security—than died during the terrorist attacks. Or to take a more prosaic example, special “high-entry” subway turn­stiles make it much harder for people to sneak in for a free ride but also make platform evacuations much slower in the case of an emergency.

The common thread in Against Security is that effective security comes less from the top down and more from the bottom up. Molotch’s subtitle telegraphs this conclusion: “How We Go Wrong at Airports, Subways, and Other Sites of Ambiguous Danger.” It’s the word ambiguous that’s important here. When we don’t know what sort of threats we want to defend against, it makes sense to give the people closest to whatever is happening the authority and the flexibility to do what is necessary. In many of Molotch’s anecdotes and examples, the authority figure—a subway train driver, a policeman—has to break existing rules to provide the security needed in a particular situation. Many security failures are exacerbated by a reflexive adherence to regulations.

Molotch is absolutely right to home in on this kind of individual initiative and resilience as a critical source of true security. Current U.S. security policy is overly focused on specific threats. We defend individual buildings and monuments. We defend airplanes against certain terrorist tactics: shoe bombs, liquid bombs, underwear bombs. These measures have limited value because the number of potential terrorist tactics and targets is much greater than the ones we have recently observed. Does it really make sense to spend a gazillion dollars just to force terrorists to switch tactics? Or drive to a different target? In the face of modern society’s ambiguous dangers, it is flexibility that makes security effective.

We get much more bang for our security dollar by not trying to guess what terrorists are going to do next. Investigation, intelligence, and emergency response are where we should be spending our money. That doesn’t mean mass surveillance of everyone or the entrapment of incompetent terrorist wannabes; it means tracking down leads—the sort of thing that caught the 2006 U.K. liquid bombers. They chose their tactic specifically to evade established airport security at the time, but they were arrested in their London apartments well before they got to the airport on the strength of other kinds of intelligence.

In his review of Against Security in Times Higher Education, aviation security expert Omar Malik takes issue with the book’s seeming trivialization of the airplane threat and Molotch’s failure to discuss terrorist tactics. “Nor does he touch on the multitude of objects and materials that can be turned into weapons,” Malik laments. But this is precisely the point. Our fears of terrorism are wildly out of proportion to the actual threat, and an analysis of various movie-plot threats does nothing to make us safer.

In addition to urging people to be more reasonable about potential threats, Molotch makes a strong case for optimism and kindness. Treating every air traveler as a potential terrorist and every Hurricane Katrina refugee as a potential looter is dehumanizing. Molotch argues that we do better as a society when we trust and respect people more. Yes, the occasional bad thing will happen, but 1) it happens less often, and is less damaging, than you probably think, and 2) individuals naturally organize to defend each other. This is what happened during the evacuation of the Twin Towers and in the aftermath of Katrina before official security took over. Those in charge often do a worse job than the common people on the ground.

While that message will please skeptics of authority, Molotch sees a role for government as well. In fact, many of his lessons are primarily aimed at government agencies, to help them design and implement more effective security systems. His final chapter is invaluable on that score, discussing how we should focus on nurturing the good in most people—by giving them the ability and freedom to self-organize in the event of a security disaster, for example—rather than focusing solely on the evil of the very few. It is a hopeful yet realistic message for an irrationally anxious time. Whether those government agencies will listen is another question entirely.

earlier essay: Our New Regimes of Trust
later essay: Power And The Internet
categories: Airline Travel, National Security Policy, Psychology of Security
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Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

Schneier on Security is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Co3 Systems, Inc..