Posted on January 6, 2010

Security Theatre of the Absurd

Margaret Wente, Globe and Mail (Toronto), January 4, 2010

My sister is a foot soldier in the war against terrorists. She works in security at a major U.S. airport, where she screens baggage in transit from Canada to other U.S. cities. Many of these bags contain bottles of maple syrup, which evidently resemble bombs. Whenever a bottle is detected by a screening machine, it must be personally examined by security personnel to ensure that it’s harmless. The system works! No bomb disguised as maple syrup has ever entered the United States.

This is not simply security theatre, as some people call it. This is Security Theatre of the Absurd.

One day, our grandchildren will marvel at our preposterous approach to self-defence. They’ll wonder why we squandered billions on useless security measures. They’ll be amazed at how we harassed millions of ordinary citizens and made flying as unpleasant as possible. They’ll shake their heads at our naive faith in high-tech fixes to stop low-tech killers. How do we catch crotch-bombers? By buying full-body scanners, at $200,000 apiece!

Airport security is a “show designed to make people feel better,” security expert Bruce Schneier says. It might catch stupid terrorists, but certainly not smart ones. He says only two things have made flying safer since 9/11: the reinforcement of cockpit doors and the fact that passengers now know how to resist hijackers.

But in the face of seeming failure, the authorities must be seen to take decisive action. This is the reason why those of you with weak bladders are now advised to take the train.

Some societies (such as Israel) build walls to keep the killers out. If this involves a certain collective punishment of the killers’ neighbours, they figure, then so be it. Ours must be the first society in history that has tried to stop the killers by imposing collective punishment on ourselves.

How did we arrive at this absurd impasse? Because of our elaborately overdeveloped concern for human rights, combined with our towering fear of the hurt feelings of Muslims. If everyone is equal, then differential treatment must be racist, which is why we have decided that your grandma from Moose Jaw gets the same pat-down as a devout young male Muslim from Nigeria who did a recent stint at a religious school in Yemen.

The case of the underwear bomber certainly revealed lapses in the system. But there will always be lapses in the system. Trying to safeguard against the last thing a suicide killer tried–Surrender your liquids, Granny!–is merely theatre, because it’s not the technique that needs to be intercepted, it’s the killers.

There were other Muslim bad guys on the loose last week. One was an axe-wielding Somali who broke into the house of Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard. The cartoonist has been under constant threat of death since he drew an infamous caricature of the Prophet Mohammed nearly five years ago. His house has been turned into a fortress, with surveillance cameras, steel doors, bulletproof windows and a safe room, to which he retreated with his small grandchild.

The rights of foreigners are scrupulously protected in Denmark. The Somali man had won an asylum case and received a residency permit, even though he had known ties to al-Qaeda. Another man, a Tunisian, was implicated in a different plot to kill the cartoonist. He was released last week after efforts to expel him from Denmark were rejected by an immigration board.

Neither Barack Obama nor anybody else in authority is willing to state the plain and simple facts: that Islamism is on the rise worldwide, that the vast majority of terrorists who attack the West are young Muslim men, that such young men are a demographic time bomb in the Islamic world, that no security system can ever stop them all. Instead of telling us to hold our bladders, maybe they should start to tell the truth–even if it costs my maple-syrup-weary sister a job.