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The naked truth about Airport Security Theater

"It's easier to put on slippers than to carpet the whole world." -- Stuart Smalley

My Theory of Everything (regarding human behavior) centers on our species' poor understanding of risk assessment and management.* Which is probably why I found this NY Times op-ed, "A Waste of Time and Money," by "security technologist" Bruce Schneier, so very refreshing after all the pre-Thanksgiving junk-touching hysteria. Remember that? It seems to have evaporated over the weekend, but there are still lessons to be learned. So, let's get right to Schneier's point:

A short history of airport security: We screen for guns and bombs, so the terrorists use box cutters. We confiscate box cutters and corkscrews, so they put explosives in their sneakers. We screen footwear, so they try to use liquids. We confiscate liquids, so they put PETN bombs in their underwear. We roll out full-body scanners, even though they wouldn't have caught the Underwear Bomber, so they put a bomb in a printer cartridge. We ban printer cartridges over 16 ounces -- the level of magical thinking here is amazing -- and they're going to do something else.

This is a stupid game, and we should stop playing it.

It's not even a fair game. It's not that the terrorist picks an attack and we pick a defense, and we see who wins. It's that we pick a defense, and then the terrorists look at our defense and pick an attack designed to get around it. Our security measures only work if we happen to guess the plot correctly. If we get it wrong, we've wasted our money. This isn't security; it's security theater.

I'd forgotten I had read Schneier's book "Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World" back in 2003, when I was doing a lot of reading about fear and risk during America's disgraceful (and evidently endlessly self-renewing) post-9/11 freakout. But his ideas have stayed with me.

I'm even less tolerant of airline passengers' squeamishness now that I have a pacemaker/defibrillator running my heart. I have to get the TSA putdown -- aka the dreaded "male assist" -- every time I fly. I will do anything I can to avoid flying -- not because I've ever been afraid of flying, or because I'm more concerned about the illusion of "security," or because I'm freaked that someone will feel my junk through my clothing (nobody's ever grabbed it, but it doesn't go halfway down my thigh, either -- sorry, Clarence Thomas). I don't want to fly because: 1) all the waiting in line and suffocating on board and being treated like shit by the airline and its employees is so unpleasant (I don't care what the FAA says, a flight is not "on-time" when it leaves the gate or lands on the runway... and then sits on the tarmac for minutes or hours); and 2) it's one of the biggest contributors to air pollution and global warming. (OK, that last one is a very distant second, but I see people getting all self-righteous about driving their low-emission vehicles and recycling their trash (as do I), then hypocritically jetting off for business and pleasure without a care for the consequences.)

So, I'll just say what I say to myself all the time: Look, you're going to die. (I'm most likely going to die sooner than you.) If you travel on a plane, you increase your chances of dying, even though (as we are always reminded) it's still -- statistically speaking -- the safest form of travel. But nothing anyone can do can significantly reduce your chances of dying tomorrow. If you fly, your chances of dying will increase measurably, and you should face up to that fact -- just as you dramatically increase your exposure to death or injury every time you get into a car or, for that matter, get out of bed. You know that feeling you get when the plane first lifts off the ground? That's the feeling that you're no longer in control. (But if you do see someone emitting sparks from some portion of his anatomy, by all means grab the sucker and put it out.)

Our ever-changing rituals we call airport security measures are only the very last line of defense against kooks with bombs, and mostly for show -- to acknowledge something that already happened. The chances they will make you safer from the next form of attack are about the same as your buying a single winning a lottery on the day you fly. And you're still probably more likely to just crash for some non-terrorism-related reason than you are to get blown up on purpose by a lunatic. (Does no one remember "Airport" in 1970?)

Here's what I advocate: Don't fly. Just stop. We're addicted to cheap air travel and it's wreaking havoc on the world. It's just bad. Bad, bad, bad. Nobody has to travel, unless it's an emergency and you have to go help somebody in another distant locale. Otherwise, it's probably frivolous and decadent. Most business travel is expense-account bullshit. I'm all for expanding one's horizons, but save up and take a real trip, to someplace where terrorism has been an everyday reality for decades, in the streets and on various forms of mass transportation -- you know, like Europe or Asia or the Middle East. That will give you some perspective.

I'll give the last word to Schneier:

Exactly two things have made airplane travel safer since 9/11: reinforcing the cockpit door, and convincing passengers they need to fight back. Everything else has been a waste of money. Add screening of checked bags and airport workers and we're done. Take all the rest of the money and spend it on investigation and intelligence.

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* As I've long said (because it's so obvious), studio executives are not in the movie business, they are in the risk management business (which is also known as the job preservation business). Today, of course, all corporations are virtually the same -- they consist of fronts for investments in other companies, no matter what goods or services they stamp with their logo -- and they all seem to be conglomerated into larger umbrella-entities that exist to launder imaginary money and avoid paying taxes. The current financial debacle was created by computer-assisted financial instruments (combined with old-fashioned Ponzi schemes) designed to create the illusion of mathematically abstract investment opportunities with high return and zero risk. And what fed it? The American Dream, of course! Home mortgages, sold under false terms to people who couldn't afford them, but didn't know it until the hidden charges started kicking in. (You mean you didn't factor in those percentages in the footnotes on pages 129 and 312?) Only markets as corrupt as those we know collectively as Wall Street (using the expertise of physicists and computer programmers who came up with the calculations) could find a way to generate fantasy wealth from bad debt! We still believe in alchemy.

(Note: If this post seems extra-cranky in tone, it's probably because I'm still sick with the head/respiratory crud -- three weeks and counting -- and I've been watching political documentaries such as "The Most Dangerous Man in America," "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer" and "Inside Job" so, as Steve Guttenberg memorably said in "Diner," "My blood is boiling!" All three are enlightening, and the Ellsberg one makes WikiLeaks look like the work of childish pranksters.)

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