The Security Theater Cycle

“What we obtain too cheap,” Thomas Paine famously wrote, “we esteem too lightly”—and it turns out that the converse holds true as well. It’s a well known and robustly confirmed finding of social psychology that people tend to ascribe greater value to things they had to pay a high cost to obtain. So, for instance, people who must endure some form of embarrassing or uncomfortable hazing process or initiation rite to join a group will report valuing their participation in that group much more highly than those admitted without any such requirement—which is one reason such rituals are all but ubiquitous in human societies as a way of creating commitment. Studies suggest that people are more likely to read automobile reviews after purchasing a new car than before—suggesting that people are sometimes less concerned with spending money in the most judicious fashion than with convincing themselves, after the fact, that they have done so. More morbidly, relatives of soldiers killed in action sometimes become much more fervent supporters of the war that cost them a loved one—because the thought that such a grave loss served no good purpose is too much to stomach.

I suspect that this phenomenon may help explain the dispiriting state of affairs described by an airline industry insider in an important Wired piece on airport security. The short version: we’ve spent some $56 billion on “enhancing” airport security over the past decade, with almost no actual security enhancement to show for it. We’re spending huge amounts of money and effort on burdensome passenger screening that doesn’t seem very effective, while neglecting other, far more vulnerable attack surfaces. It is, when you think about it, a somewhat strange priority given the abundance of highly vulnerable domestic targets. Reinforced cockpit doors and changed passenger behavior pretty much made a repeat of a 9/11-style suicide hijacking of a domestic flight infeasible—at negligible economic and privacy cost—long before we started installing Total Recall style naked-scanners, which makes explosives the real remaining risk. Yet the notable bombing attempts by passengers we’ve seen since 9/11 have (a) originated outside the United States, and (b) been foiled by alert passengers after the aspiring bomber slipped through the originating country’s formal screening process.

This shouldn’t be terribly surprising: when a terror group has already managed to get an operative into the United States, a domestic flight (that can’t be turned into a missile) would be one of the stupider, riskier targets to select, given the enormous array of much softer target options that would be available at that point, even assuming pre-9/11 airport security protocols. As far as I’m aware, the last time a passenger successfully detonated a bomb on a U.S. domestic flight was in 1962. This presents something of a puzzle: Why have we focused so disproportionately on this specific attack vector, at such disproportionate cost, when the terrorists themselves have not? Why haven’t we reallocated scarce resources to security measures (such as better screening of airline employees) that would provide greater security benefit at the margins? One possibility is that, having accustomed ourselves to submitting to the hassle and indignity of ever more aggressive passenger screening, we become more disposed to believe that these measures are necessary.

It’s become commonplace to refer to many aspects of airport screening—the removal of shoes, the transparent plastic baggies for your small allotment of shampoo—as “security theater.” Security guru Bruce Schneier coined the term to refer to security measures whose ritualistic purpose is to make passengers feel safer, even though they do almost nothing to actually increase safety. But on reflection, this seems wrong. It probably holds true in the immediate aftermath of a high-profile attack or disaster. Once the initial heightened fear subsides, however, these visible and elaborate security measures probably do more to increase our perception of risk than to assuage our fears. It is, after all, something of a cliche that hyperprotective parents tend to end up raising children who see the world as a more dangerous place. Overreacting to childhood illnesses is one reliable way of producing adult hypochondriacs down the road.

Security theater, then, isn’t only—or even primarily—about making us feel safer. It’s about making us feel we wouldn’t be safe without it. The more we submit to intrusive monitoring, the more convinced we become that the intrusions are an absolute necessity. To think otherwise is to face the demeaning possibility that we have been stripped, probed, and made to jump through hoops all this time for no good reason at all. The longer we pay the costs—in time, privacy, and dignity no less than tax dollars—the more convinced we become that we must be buying something worth the price. Hence, the Security Theater Cycle: the longer the ritual persists, the more normal it comes to seem, the more it serves as psychological proof of its own necessity.