Fans attending Major League Baseball games are being greeted in a new way this year: with metal detectors at the ballparks. Touted as a counterterrorism measure, they’re nothing of the sort. They’re pure security theater: They look good without doing anything to make us safer. We’re stuck with them because of a combination of buck passing, CYA thinking, and fear.
As a security measure, the new devices are laughable. The ballpark metal detectors are much more lax than the ones at an airport checkpoint. They aren’t very sensitive—people with phones and keys in their pockets are sailing through—and there are no X-ray machines. Bags get the same cursory search they’ve gotten for years. And fans wanting to avoid the detectors can opt for a “light pat-down search” instead.
There’s no evidence that this new measure makes anyone safer. A halfway competent ticketholder would have no trouble sneaking a gun into the stadium. For that matter, a bomb exploded at a crowded checkpoint would be no less deadly than one exploded in the stands. These measures will, at best, be effective at stopping the random baseball fan who’s carrying a gun or knife into the stadium. That may be a good idea, but unless there’s been a recent spate of fan shootings and stabbings at baseball games—and there hasn’t—this is a whole lot of time and money being spent to combat an imaginary threat.
But imaginary threats are the only ones baseball executives have to stop this season; there’s been no specific terrorist threat or actual intelligence to be concerned about. MLB executives forced this change on ballparks based on unspecified discussions with the Department of Homeland Security after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. Because, you know, that was also a sporting event.
This system of vague consultations and equally vague threats ensure that no one organization can be seen as responsible for the change. MLB can claim that the league and teams “work closely” with DHS. DHS can claim that it was MLB’s initiative. And both can safely relax because if something happens, at least they did something.
It’s an attitude I’ve seen before: “Something must be done. This is something. Therefore, we must do it.” Never mind if the something makes any sense or not.
In reality, this is CYA security, and it’s pervasive in post-9/11 America. It no longer matters if a security measure makes sense, if it’s cost-effective or if it mitigates any actual threats. All that matters is that you took the threat seriously, so if something happens you won’t be blamed for inaction. It’s security, all right—security for the careers of those in charge.
I’m not saying that these officials care only about their jobs and not at all about preventing terrorism, only that their priorities are skewed. They imagine vague threats, and come up with correspondingly vague security measures intended to address them. They experience none of the costs. They’re not the ones who have to deal with the long lines and confusion at the gates. They’re not the ones who have to arrive early to avoid the messes the new policies have caused around the league. And if fans spend more money at the concession stands because they’ve arrived an hour early and have had the food and drinks they tried to bring along confiscated, so much the better, from the team owners’ point of view.
I can hear the objections to this as I write. You don’t know these measures won’t be effective! What if something happens? Don’t we have to do everything possible to protect ourselves against terrorism?
That’s worst-case thinking, and it’s dangerous. It leads to bad decisions, bad design and bad security. A better approach is to realistically assess the threats, judge security measures on their effectiveness and take their costs into account. And the result of that calm, rational look will be the realization that there will always be places where we pack ourselves densely together, and that we should spend less time trying to secure those places and more time finding terrorist plots before they can be carried out.
So far, fans have been exasperated but mostly accepting of these new security measures. And this is precisely the problem—most of us don’t care all that much. Our options are to put up with these measures, or stay home. Going to a baseball game is not a political act, and metal detectors aren’t worth a boycott. But there’s an undercurrent of fear as well. If it’s in the name of security, we’ll accept it. As long as our leaders are scared of the terrorists, they’re going to continue the security theater. And we’re similarly going to accept whatever measures are forced upon us in the name of security. We’re going to accept the National Security Agency’s surveillance of every American, airport security procedures that make no sense and metal detectors at baseball and football stadiums. We’re going to continue to waste money overreacting to irrational fears.
We no longer need the terrorists. We’re now so good at terrorizing ourselves.
This essay previously appeared in the Washington Post.