A Cautious Take on “Security Theater” in Airline Security Measures

In his post below, my co-blogger Jonathan Adler derides airline security measures as political theater. Echoing frustrations of many frequent flyers, he writes:

Airport security is already more show than substance. It’s an exercise of political theater that is supposed to make travelers feel more secure. I am unconvinced it even does that very well anymore, and from what I’ve heard thus far, the new measures are only going to make things worse.

I can’t gauge how effective airport security measures are, but I think there’s a concept driving them beyond “political theater.” The model seems to be that the bad guys will want to do the same thing over and over again if we let them, and that our best security response is to force them to switch tactics to something unproven and less likely to work. As a result, we tend to ban the things that were used in the most recent attack to make it harder to try that method again the next time.

Consider a few examples The 9/11 hijackers were thought to have used boxcutters and knives to subdue passengers and to take over flights. In response, U.S. security officials banned boxcutters, knives, and similar objects. Richard Reid, the December 2001 “shoe bomber,” tried to blow up a plane using explosives in his shoes, which generally can’t be detected by scanners because they are too low to the ground. In response, U.S. security officials required the removal of shoes when going through scanners. The 2006 transatlantic airplane plot was going to use large quantities of liquid explosives brought in carry on and assembled midflight to blow up 10 planes. In response, U.S. security officials banned large quantities of liquids. And following the most recent example of the Christmas attack, in which the terrorist apparently assembled the bomb in the bathroom and then tried to detonate it on his lap under a blanket as the flight was coming in for a landing in the U.S., the new limitations imposed by security officials are placing limitations on moving around and what is in your lap on the last leg of incoming U.S. international flights.

Emotions run high when it comes to commenting on air travel security restrictions. They are among the few examples of U.S. government responses to the war on terror that have a clear impact on the convenience of regular people. (UPDATE: Especially regular people in the sense of regular business travelers, such as those likely to read our blog.) Still, it’s not so obvious to me that these restrictions are bad ideas or just “security theater.” Experience suggests that the terrorists associated with Al Qaeda like to try the same thing again: They come back to tried methods and tried targets. Remember that the World Trade Center was first attacked in 1993; the 2001 attack was a second attempt. If that’s right, then it would make at least some sense to try to force Al Qaeda to change tactics. The idea would be that when they try something, make it harder to try that same method again. Make the bad guys change their strategy every time to something new.

To be clear, I can’t gauge how effective our security measures really are. I think it’s interesting that the post-9/11 airline attacks have all (I think) involved flights originating outside the United States, but I’m not sure I know enough to say why that is. And I realize there is no way to comment on these issues without a certain portion of VC readers and commenters thinking you are a total idiot, a hack, a rube, a Nazi, etc., no matter what you say. Still, I wanted to suggest that there may be a strategy going on here that goes beyond just “security theater.” It may or may not be working, but there does seem to be a method to the madness in the response of U.S. security officials.