18 December 2012

TSA Style Security Measures Counterproductive

A new book, "Against Security" by Harvey Molotch, reviewed here, cogently argues that the approach to securing public places exemplified by the Transportation Security Administration, is really "security theater" that may actually put us at greater risk.

Sometimes we implement security measures against one threat, only to magnify another. . . . 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. . . .

[E]ffective security comes less from the top down and more from the bottom up. . . . 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. . . . this kind of individual initiative and resilience [is] . . . a critical source of true security.

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. . . .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. . . . 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.

A low key, liberal society has a lot of payoffs that even its advocates often don't fully appreaciate. A society where people are comfortable passing along tips to the right people are more effective than checkpoints, and reliance on every day heros may be more effective than efforts to creat giant bureaucracies of security specialists.

We would also be well served, generally, by learning to better teach our children the generalized skill of self-organization, something that Americans have tended to do less well in the last half century or so, for example, than their Japanese and British peers.

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