Is aviation security mostly for show?

Bruce Schneier:

Security is both a feeling and a reality. The propensity for security theater comes from the interplay between the public and its leaders.

When people are scared, they need something done that will make them feel safe, even if it doesn’t truly make them safer. Politicians naturally want to do something in response to crisis, even if that something doesn’t make any sense.

Often, this “something” is directly related to the details of a recent event. We confiscate liquids, screen shoes, and ban box cutters on airplanes. We tell people they can’t use an airplane restroom in the last 90 minutes of an international flight. But it’s not the target and tactics of the last attack that are important, but the next attack. These measures are only effective if we happen to guess what the next terrorists are planning.

If we spend billions defending our rail systems, and the terrorists bomb a shopping mall instead, we’ve wasted our money. If we concentrate airport security on screening shoes and confiscating liquids, and the terrorists hide explosives in their brassieres and use solids, we’ve wasted our money. Terrorists don’t care what they blow up and it shouldn’t be our goal merely to force the terrorists to make a minor change in their tactics or targets.

Our current response to terrorism is a form of “magical thinking.” It relies on the idea that we can somehow make ourselves safer by protecting against what the terrorists happened to do last time.


  1. TSA is an enormous, unfunny joke. I’d trust the guy sitting across the aisle from me to keep me safe before I’d trust a TSA agent.

  2. The Israelis figured this out a long time ago. They rely heavily on human intelligence – namely, interviewing passengers and gauging their responses. You simply can’t design a mechanical system that’s capable of detecting every threat the terrorists might devise.

  3. Most of this stuff is definitely just for show. This was pointed out by Bob Dyer, a columnist for my local paper, The Akron Beacon Journal. About 6 or 7 years ago (a year or two after the 9/11 attacks), Dyer was sent on a trip by the Beacon to cover a story concerning various towns across the U.S. named Akron. This occassioned Dyer to experience travel in the “First Class” section for the first time, due to some sort of fluke that gave him a free upgrade. Dyer noted that his in-flight meal was served on a heavy-duty ceramic plate, and that his beverage was served in a long-stemmed, glass wine goblet. He was given a cloth napkin containing plastic cutlery. When he asked for a metal knife to cut up his chicken breast, he was denied. The flight attendant politely told him that knives were not allowed on board, as they could be potentially used as weapons. Dyer noted the absurdity of the fact that his ceramic dinner plate and his glass, long-stemmed wine goblet could also be used as weapons. The no knife rule is merely a “feel-good” measure used to placate a credulous public.

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