Public Ignorance and the Political Economy of Airport Security: Why Governments Don’t Take Enough Precautions Before Attacks and Engage in “Security Theater” Afterwards

Co-blogger Orin Kerr points out that some people claim that governments fail to take proper airport security precautions before an attack happens, while others worry that they will overreact once an attack does occur. Unfortunately, these two problems are not mutually exclusive. It could well be that governments both fail to take proper precautions before an attack occurs and respond with unnecessary “security theater” measures afterward.

I. Perverse Political Incentives Before and After Terrorist Attacks.

Before an attack occurs, or when a long period of time has passed between attacks, politicians have little incentive to enact good security measures. They have limited time and political capital, and the incentive is to spend it on measures that are popular with the general public or that benefit powerful interest groups. Neither the public nor interest groups are likely to push hard for effective security measures when there is no immediate fear of attack.

To be sure, incumbent politicians might be blamed if a successful attack occurs. However, large successful attacks are fairly rare, and there is a good chance that none will occur during any given politician’s term even if security policies are far from optimal. Moreover, when an attack does occur, many voters will assume that it was unpredictable and forego imposing electoral sanctions on the incumbents. For example, neither party suffered electoral damage after the failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks. This helps explain why, prior to 9/11, neither Democrats nor Republicans made a high priority of eliminating even our worst security policies, such as the “intelligence wall” which was later heavily criticized by the 9/11 Commission and others.

After an attack, politicians have strong incentives to enact measures that make the public believe they are “doing something” to prevent a recurrence. Unfortunately, “security theater” policies often accomplish this political objective better than less visible measures that are likely to be more effective in actually preventing attacks. As security expert Bruce Schneier puts it:

Politicians naturally want to do something in response to crisis, even if that something doesn’t make any sense. But unfortunately for politicians, the security measures that work are largely invisible. Such measures include enhancing the intelligence-gathering abilities of the secret services, hiring cultural experts and Arabic translators, building bridges with Islamic communities both nationally and internationally, funding police capabilities — both investigative arms to prevent terrorist attacks, and emergency communications systems for after attacks occur — and arresting terrorist plotters without media fanfare. They do not include expansive new police or spying laws, or security theater measures that directly target the most recent tactic or target.

A closely related problem is that, in the immediate aftermath of an attack, governments have strong incentives to target the specific methods used in that attack, even though this “fighting the last war” strategy probably won’t foil terrorists who are smart enough to use new tactics the next time.

II. The Role of Political Ignorance.

Of course both pathologies would be greatly reduced if voters were knowledgeable about security issues. In that happy scenario, they would press politicians to enact effective preventive measures before an attack, and would not put up with “security theater” if a successful attack does occur. Such well-informed voters would also understand that it is impossible to reduce terrorist attacks to zero at an acceptable cost, and that we should not enact costly measures whose main effect is simply to divert terrorists to other, more vulnerable targets. Armed with this knowledge, the voters could punish politicians who neglected security before an attack. They could do the same to those who enact “security theater” policies afterwards.

Unfortunately, most voters are “rationally ignorant” about politics, and know very little about airport security policy (as is also true of most other policy areas). They also have strong incentives to do a poor job of evaluating the very limited information about politics they do know. Airport security is particularly difficult for ignorant voters to assess because it is complex, and many of the most effective measures are invisible to the public. Moreover, it’s hard for the public to measure success, since there is no way for voters to know whether a long period without an attack was the result of security measures, luck, offensive victories against the terrorists or other factors. Public ignorance is likely to be an especially serious problem in dealing with policies that are complex and difficult to understand.

For these reasons, politicians have strong incentives to neglect effective security measures before an attack occurs, and to overreact with dubious “security theater” policies afterwards. That does not mean that they will never take any effective measures at all. Once a major attack does occur, politicians have at least some incentive to enact effective policies in addition to “security theater,” because they will likely suffer greater political blame if another successful attack happens soon after. But public ignorance does help explain why there tends to be an undersupply of good security policies before attacks and an oversupply of security theater afterwards.