Against security

Does airport security do any good?

Topics: Airports, National security, Air Travel, Books, Writers and Writing,

Against security
Excerpted from Against Security available from Princeton University Press.

Airports have turned out badly. It takes about the same amount of time to travel through air today as it did dozens of years ago, but a lot longer time to get off the ground. Security procedures not only change the timing, but also exact huge costs in money, mood, and resentments with consequences far and wide.

When I was young, my family was not the only one that, however bad the food, would go to the airport to have a meal. Just being around air travel was a treat. The idea of travel has long been an excitement. We find it in prose, poetry, and song — particularly since safe and fast mechanisms, especially planes, have appealed to a wide audience. Air travel feeds on the basic human desire to “get out” — up, up, and away. The Italian song, “Volare” (“to fly”) won two Grammys and was the Billboard top single of 1958. “Come fly with me,” echoed Frank Sinatra in his huge hit album of that name in the same year. Some of the frisson may have been fed by a sense of some danger; flying was indeed less safe in those days. To help assuage and assure while at the same time performing little miracles of hot meals even on short flights, air carriers larded on cocktails, shrimp appetizers, and attractive young stewardesses. And people could visit the gates to see one another off and meet those coming in, sometimes with large (and animated) groups of well-wishers and greeters.

Before 1973, when a number of hijackings prompted the U.S. government to take restrictive action, people entered airports as casually as they now go into department stores. Indeed, air travel’s festival nature invited joining the “jet set.” Security was so informal that people could actually give their tickets away or exchange them with one another (as long as genders more or less aligned with the names on the tickets). This could provide quick and easy solutions to life problems that might arise — for example, “I can’t go to the wedding, so you go.” A “fly-away” Michigan fraternity party, held  at the  Detroit airport, featured one couple being presented with tickets (phony names were on them) to a surprise destination — that very night. Everyone came packed for the possibility. On board, things could also be festively informal and boisterous. A large group I was part of (conventioneers on an appliance company junket) was able to convince the flight crew to allow one among us (Sam Moss, from the Zenith television wholesale distributor, who was very funny) to get on the intercom and regale passengers with his singing and off-color jokes. Those were the days, my friend.



For people much lower on the social totem pole than appliance dealers and closer to our own time, airport openness served another function. Airports sheltered the homeless. According to the research of sociologist Kim Hopper, hundreds of people once lived in airports. It was a plausible solution to a host of practical problems. Airports have heat in the winter and air-conditioning in the summer. They have running water and bathroom facilities that are mostly empty for long periods of time. And there is also a good supply of free food, cast off by restaurants or left behind by hurried passengers. Also, sleeping at the gates is common enough to allow homeless people to have a rest without being too obtrusive. But now without a boarding pass, homeless people cannot get very far. They were living in the interstices, and interstices are inimical to security regimes.

Impotence

One reason for the great concentration of security at airports in the first place is not that that it is effective, but that it can, quite simply, be arranged. Against the inherent ambiguity of securitization, having controls at entry gates presents itself as something doable. Planes are nice discrete people holders that have narrow points of ingress; passengers can be bunched  up for clearance at specific choke points. Logistical possibilities of this sort influence  just where security operates within the airport, even when it in fact creates crowds that otherwise would not exist. The extra questions at check-in slow down movement and cause people to cluster up. The  security gate furthers the gathering up, making for dense crowds — still not yet scrutinized for weaponry — often in a snaking queue. This is a security-generated target often consisting of a larger number of people than would be on any airplane.

It is a common observation in the security business that in hardening a particular facility against perpetrators, you may deflect attack to a more opportune location. For a private individual or firm, it may make sense to take advantage of this fact by shifting threats to another setting — a competing bank or restaurant. With public facilities, such deflection makes no sense — it doesn’t matter much to people and their loved ones if they die before or after screening. In my discussions with former high officials at TSA, they express frustration with this problem, which has evaded solution.

As far as I know, the vast airport apparatus has not stopped a single incident of mayhem; the foiling of plots comes from other forces, such as advance intelligence or actions on board. Each restriction is a remedy for a technique used in a prior attack. As the list of contraband items grows, add-ons intensify complexity, and increase the time it takes to process an individual through. The growing pressure to notice details of more items and behaviors, according to one report of the Rand Corporation, taxes the capacity of TSA inspectors to spot even obvious items of threat.

Further, boredom among the guards can breed an “atrophy of vigilance,” in the phrase of sociologist William Freudenburg.  Laboratory researchers refer to the phenomenon as “instrument decay,” in the same way that equipment wears out, becoming less effective over time (and thus affecting experimental results). Some analogous shift can happen with the equipment that is human, and indeed, as one indicator, labor turnover has continued at a high rate even after federalization of the security system.

The classic studies of assembly lines show how people manipulate the pace of work by either ganging up tasks — running ahead or “catching up” with items moving past them.  Josiah Heyman has observed how border patrol workers sometimes make a game of catching people and their illicit materials by competing with one another — who can catch more bad guys today? In part, these games are in response to job tedium, while also fitting in with larger organizational goals, as they interpret them. Our subway workers also developed game-like strategies, including  ways to move boisterous kids out of their stations to keep lines moving (“popping” the doors on them). Airport screeners, we learn from a Reason Foundation strategy paper, “select additional passengers for manual inspection, to maintain a desired workload level.” They too adjust official rules to deal with work context.

In some cases, airport guards just do not do their job at all. A traveler through Abu Dhabi (some time ago) reports security guards deserting their station to go for a smoke, with passengers just walking through. At Accra airport, and likely other parts of the world, guards look for a little money to facilitate passage. Their attention is not on the contents of the scanning machines. At Newark Airport in 2010, a TSA officer guarding the concourse exit against intruders left his post only briefly, but that was long enough for an intruder to enter the departures area without clearance — resulting  in  a six-hour shut-down of the  terminal. Anecdotes of such incidents can be found on various websites that carry passenger comments about airports and also on the Bruce Schneier security blog.

So it happens that, even in efficient societies like the United States, there  are not infrequent  failures to detect contraband.  A particular problem is detecting bomb parts; because bombs disassemble into individual elements, each of which will appear innocent to a screener. But screeners also miss grossly inappropriate artifacts. A report leaked to the press on TSA’s own undercover operations, again at Newark Airport (conducted  in October  2006), found that screeners failed twenty of twenty-two security tests, missing numerous guns and simulated bombs (these tests are not about liquids or scissors). There had been previous and repeated failures of 100 percent at some U.S. airports, according to an ABC News report. Because it is against TSA policy to reveal the results of covert operations, it is not easy to find accounts of the agency’s own internal undercover research and the degree to which it tests for more subtle elements passing through the gates (like parts of weapons, as opposed to finished artifacts). Occasionally a passenger tells after the fact of being able to carry through illicit material, including a gun in the case of one businessman who had inadvertently left the weapon in his hand baggage.

The two most dramatic efforts to blow up U.S. aircraft post-9/11 both involved failures to detect. In the first, the now notorious “shoe bomber,” Richard C. Reid, placed a plastic explosive in his hollowed out soles with enough C4 PETN to blow a hole through the fuselage of the plane he was on. On his first attempt to depart Paris for a flight to Miami on December 21, 2001, authorities would not allow him to board because of his appearance  and other suspicious indicators, like having no checked luggage. But after further interviews by French National Police, he was rebooked for the following day’s Paris-Miami flight. This time he got on the plane, but when aloft he failed to ignite his shoes despite numerous attempts. Apparently, it has been reasoned, moisture had penetrated his shoes, either from body sweat or being out in the rain during the day before his postponed departure. Reid, British born to an English white woman and a Jamaican immigrant, had converted to Islam as an adult. He had spent time at an Afghanistan training site and had extensive history with al-Qaeda operatives during his two years living in Pakistan. Not only had the French authorities (and U.S. airline operatives) missed these indicators, so had the vaunted Israeli security apparatus; Reid had flown to Israel in July of 2001 and had passed through the El Al screenings as well. At his eventual U.S. trial, he admitted (proclaimed, really) membership in al-Qaeda. The result for Reid was lifetime imprisonment. For the rest of us, it has meant taking off our shoes at airports.

Theater of domination?

Because so much at airport security (and other security settings as well) seems to make so little sense, it is tempting to use the term “security theater” for the whole apparatus and to see it as deliberately engineered to engender supplication and deference to the powerful. Making people anxious is the whole point, some say. In an environment where there can be “no compromise with the war on terror,” those motivated by significant and serious commitment — including concerned travelers — must join in the performance. Anything else risks a display of softness and reluctance to do our part.

However plausible it is to see the world that way, my own view relies less on organized and capable conspiracy. Believing in such connivance places too much trust on forethought and masterminding in a system that, as we have seen from the research of Kerry Fosher on the origins of 9/11 response teams, is just too helter-skelter. It stretches credulity to think these outcomes were envisioned by anyone. Instead of careful orchestration, I see the myopia of an obstinate command and control version of the world — quite dangerous, to be sure, in its own way but still indeterminate to some degree in its origin and effect. The devil is as much in the detail of omissions as in the commissions. There is no professional design, no considerate and artful setup at security, because thinking that way would involve addressing other aspects of life and ways of knowing and being. Agencies would have to develop an internal design staff or search for the right outside consultancy, and then stand up to officials at the DHS, Congress, and the White House to get the money for thoughtfulness and laterality. The kind of people involved with airport security and the kinds of environments they work within do not auger for such actions and the alternative arrangements to which they might lead.

Excerpted from Against Security: How We Go Wrong at Airports, Subways, and Other Sites of Ambiguous Danger. © 2012 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>