Against security

Does airport security do any good?

Published September 2, 2012 6:00PM (EDT)

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.


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.

By Harvey Molotch

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