About security theater, a daily demonstration that Americans are sheep

Comment by atheist in reply to “About Obama’s coronation – wisdom from Fred” (23 January 2009):

Actually, though, I like Reed’s post on the malign vaudeville that we call ‘security‘, and I see that his conclusions are the exact same ones I have come to. So maybe the guy deserves another look.

Fred Reed’s conclusions about security theater:

The whole business looks remarkably like malign vaudeville, like mummery intended to accomplish two things.

The first is to persuade the foolish that the nation is At War. Actually only the president is at war.

The second, and I would like to be wrong about this, is to train the public to obedience. The formula is simple: Keep’em scared and you can do anything. It works. Americans are rapidly becoming accustomed to Soviet-style surveillance, to the state’s power to search and spy without restraint, to being barked at and ordered about by low-level federal employees. People deserve what they tolerate.

The terrible thing about security theater IMO is that Reed’s second conclusion is almost certainly true.  Worse, we know it and do nothing.  The American people are being domesticated, like sheep — and  we do nothing.  

What would the Founders say if they saw what we have become?

What is “security theater”?

Security theater consists of security countermeasures intended to provide the feeling of improved security while doing little or nothing to actually improve security.

The term was coined by Bruce Schneier for his book Beyond Fear, and has gained currency in security circles, particularly for describing airport security measures. It is also used by some experts such as Edward Felten to describe the security measures imposed after the September 11 attacks. Security theater gains importance both by satisfying and exploiting the gap between perceived risk and actual risk. (from Wikipedia)

Some aricles about security theater

  1. Theater of the Absurd at the T.S.A.“, New York Times, 17 December 2006
  2. Security Theater“, Zach Phillips, Government Executive, 1 August 2007
  3. The Airport Security Follies“, Patrick Smith (commercial airline pilot), op-ed in the New York Times, 28 December 2007
  4. The Things He Carried“, Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic, November 2008
  5. TSA Screening Is Security Theater“, 60 Minutes, CBS, 12 December 2008

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

Posts on the FM site about America: 

52 thoughts on “About security theater, a daily demonstration that Americans are sheep”

  1. “Keep’em scared and you can do anything” kind of sums up the entire Clinton/Carville political strategy from 1995 onward.

    What are you even talking about?

  2. Brilliant comment # 34. My careful studies reveal that 23% of all marijuana in US is consumed by postal workers. Since the PO is a private corporation these crimes are not occurring on government property but in fact represent a de facto legalization. A view of the PO is a good preview of what single-payer health insurance clinics are going to look like because medical marijuana is gonna fly out the doors and windows.

  3. It’s all total piffle (I really like that word). Such as my 80 year old mother having her nail clippers taken off you. I, sadly, have to do a fair bit of flying these days and have to (sigh) endure the meaningless ‘security’. God anyone with half a brain could get just about anything through if they really wanted, even without the method all the drug crims use. bribe the baggage handlers. Anyone see any reduction in drugs coming through airports? Right.

    One thing that really gets my goat is when you go through one scanner and you are ok, then another and it goes off. And some prat tells you to take off your shoes .. which in my case have absolutely no metal at all .. nonsense all of it.

    And for proof of how totally useless it all is, except as a political tool, have a look at these. From the Chaser satirical tv program:

    APEC security – people being sheep.

    APEC Motorcade Stunt – This is totally priceless, where the police waved through ‘Osama Bin Ladin’ to where all the world ‘leaders’ were, even to within 10m from Bush before they deliberately gave themselves away!

  4. “People are no easier to herd than cats and Americans even more so than usual, and if there has been some sort of concerted attempt to intimidate me then its a dismal failure because I haven’t noticed it.”

    Not to pick on you Celebrim, because you had probably the most well thought out criticism of this post, but also I wish Americans would let go of the idea that they extra-specially rebellious, extra-specially individualistic. From looking at the way people act in other countries, and looking at the way people act in the USA, it seems to me that this is not really the case.

  5. As a libertarian, I don’t have much problem with Bush being in charge with these types of measures in place. He was a humble and self-effacing guy who only wanted to protect us from another attack by a 7th century death cult. He gave 50 million people a chance to be free at very little cost in dollars, or blood, or freedoms here at home. Indeed, by any objective standard there were fewer civil rights violations in this war and it was fought in a cleaner fashion than any we have previously waged. If you don’t believe me you can go and ask the guy my father took prisoner who was out of uniform in WWII… well you could if they hadn’t shot him. Maybe you can find a Japanese American who was interned for their perspective?

    Obama or Clinton on the other hand see nothing wrong with big government of any sort and will use these measures for their own political gain. It is what the left does. Clinton in particular already rifled through the FBI files of her political enemies so do you really think she would hesitate to use the wiretapping laws for purposes other than those which they were intended? Obama has had more ethics scandals occur amongst his nominees than Bush did in 8 years at the helm. His cult of personality is something that one normally only sees in third world countries such as Cuba at the time of the revolution or in Venezuela recently. The next tough question someone in the fawning press asks him, and then follows up on, will be the first. Obama even had a forced labor plan for children (euphemistically called community service)until he was forced to back off of it. Such a plan is typical of Marxist regimes and it speaks volumes about how little Obama thinks of liberty. BTW, he is threatening to roll this out again in the form of a “civilian army.” Orwell would be proud of that phrasing would he not?

    My only consolation is that we aren’t doing a whole lot more now than we ever did before. That is the dirty little secret. We have ALWAYS tapped foreign intercepts whether they passed through the US or not. It only became an issue for partisan reasons. Combatants taken out of uniform have NEVER been given the rights they are now afforded. The searches at airports are a pain but really, could 9/11 have occurred without some such policy being implemented? Bill Clinton started rendition and used every measure in the Patriot Act before there was a Patriot Act with the addition of allowing our spy agencies to enter the homes of US citizens.

    So frankly, I don’t see any sense of perspective here at all.

  6. In the West at least (Asia is different) we only have experience with states larger than the tens of millions going back a couple of centuries. (see World Population: Europe 1810)

    For any State to be homogeneous and cohesive, centralisation is necessary. As time goes on, relations between regions and Centre become of paramount importance. In the US and Canada we are still in the centralisation phases. Europe is trying to work out something that both further centralises some aspects whilst also strengthening certain regional aspects (witness the growth in Ireland and Wales due solely to EU policies for example after centuries of suppression).

    This security issue is really about centralisation, or perhaps we could say ‘centralisation without local representation’. Nobody can exist in a complex society with all that much influence. The typical city dweller has no knowledge or control over how water gets into the kitchen tap and is flushed down the drain, how his lights and heat work, how traffic lights are managed and so forth. This is inevitable in large communities. This is where the ‘sheep’ notion comes from. It is an inevitable aspect of being part of a much larger, infinitely complex whole.

    That said, there are bedrock principles that knit together (or apart) any society, things that get more into the ‘values’ or ‘religion’ arena and which liberals (and corporations) in general have been undermining of late with their new-fangled religion of ‘secularism’ which imposes a totalitarian view of ‘equality’ and ‘the law’ and so forth. It’s just part of the centralisation dynamic. At some point the emphasis will swing back to regional/local empowerment as part strengthening society as a whole. But for now, pretty much all US citizens are ‘sheep’l because all are forced to bow down to the same gods of ‘liberty’, ‘justice’ and ‘democracy’, none of which exist in fact as they are described in our (essentially totalitarian) propaganda.

    A Russian journalist told Canadian author Farley Mowat in the 60’s whilst the latter was visiting Siberia (great book): ‘the main difference is that in my country we know everything we read is propaganda and discount it accordingly; but you chaps think everything you read is ‘the truth’ even though it’s no less propaganda. I like our system better!’ Something to that!

  7. This post touched an exposed wire. We all understand America became a world power in 1945 which confronted the Soviet Union everywhere and promoted world trade, freedom, free trade. The means to do this was the establishment of a very large standing army for the first time in American history, a change that Eisenhower warned against as he was leaving office. Well, this changed American politics, giving enormous power to the Executive and in time giving great weight to the judiciary as the legislative branch became weaker, diffused and in time what it is now — a totally gerrymandered collection of special interests with no cohesion or purpose other than to enrich itself and its collections of special interests. The only security Americans gained from fighting four wars in Asia during this time was economic prosperity. It is now revealed that this economic engine has melted. The toxic fuels that have run it — credit — has burned it out. Now we have a real crisis which is not defined. What is going to replace this system? Nothing like this is being discussed. We are talking restoration. Restoration? Cannot work. We need to export to other countries, they need to consume more of their own crap. America is capable of reindustrializing but it will take time, probably a generation. Will the Asians and the Euros cooperate? Will E. increase domestic consumption, reduce the welfare state? Will the Asians? I doubt any of the changes are going to come willingly and easily. In the past these world “systems” have generally been produced by peace settlements after big wars. Will this be different? Who wants to fight? Who can fight really with nuclear weapons in the closets?
    If the U.S. in 1945 had followed Stimson’s proposal to give the Russians nuclear weapons information and tried cooperation would it have led to peaceful engagement? Could it? Seems unlikely. In my view the S.U. would have collapsed more quickly if we had not opposed it. Gobbling up western Europe, it would have gorged on the spoils and the process of corrupt dissolution would have been even faster. BUT all of us would have lived in a world that is much poorer. America would only in recent years have begun desegreation, decolonization would have been slower, but America might have had better relations with China earlier and avoided several costly wars in Asia. I am not interesting in spelling out counterfactual history for amusement but to suggest that the ways things are are contingent on decisions, not inevitabilities.
    Efforts are being made to restart the system we have lived with. It will stall again. We do not have something to replace it. It will have to be built by people working. The responsibility of our leaders is to keep things cool rather than let them heat up. Can they? I doubt it. They never have before. And we do not even have the language with which to have normal conversations about how to restructure world trade without it sounding like we want protectionism. Curiously, America is the only country large enough and talented and rich to pull off industrial autarchy. I hope the world does not take this kind of Orwellian path because we know what is at the end of that road. No currency is sufficiently large and strong to be THE reserve currency although the dollar will remain attractive because America is not yet considering confiscation as policy. It could change if we decide to not honor our debts as has been suggested.But there is no other currency available. Who really will hold euros as long as Russia has a thumb at the windpipe of its very wealthy neighbors?
    So, we are very like the folks waiting for Godot. We know someone is coming, has to come, but we do not know what, who, how he/she looks, speaks or acts. Certainly not because we are waiting for ourselves. When more and more people realize that the past is really over, we are going to see new voices and faces in politics, in America for sure and in other places as well. When the folks who created some of the enormous wealth generated in the last fifty years fully realize the political system no longer protects their wealth, they are going to return to politics with a vengeance. Ross Perot will seem like a quaint liberal.

  8. linda in chicago

    “Keep ’em scared and you can do anything…”

    Hey, it works in Israel. My understanding is that, prior to the recent war, any time a crummy little Hamas rocket went whizzing over from Gaza, the target area in question nearly shuts down for a day or two, people go scurrying off to bomb shelters, etc., forgetting the fact that their chances of being killed or injured by a rocket were only slightly better than winning the lottery or getting struck by lightning.

    Far more Israelis get killed or maimed each year by lousy drivers, domestic, and criminal violence, all committed by their fellow Israelis–but who wants to do anything about those??

  9. “Similarly, the real motive for using the bomb on Japan was not winning that war but intimidating the rest of the world.”

    Tom Grey : Nuthin’ ta keep that genie outta that bottle now. What happens when it’s not only your side that has the monopoly on violence or means? The paradox of Pandora’s Box.

  10. Do you think there are still “sides” on the planet? G.B. and France are far less powerful than they were when they acquired nuclear weapons and spend plenty to keep them up. Why? Russia and the U.S. still have more than 90% of them. Has Pakistan and Israel ever tested theirs? North Korea claims to have them, we know of one fizzle. Iran is working on getting them. When the US made Little Boy, it was dropped on Hiroshima without being tested, so confident were they in the design. The gun type is less powerful than an implosion device or a hydrogen bomb, but as we all know it is devastating. The US, Russia, Pakistan and possibly India have made threats, nobody else that we know about. Clearly there is renewed concerns about nuclear weapons in the last several years that have not been experienced since the 1960s. And these are not going away. Is the danger objectively greater? Feels that way. Why has no terrorist bomb been set off? Getting HEU is the barrier, making the bomb is not difficult, especially if it is a truck bomb. Has that barrier been breached? There are many reports of much material floating around Russia. Is it true? The same claim was made in the 70s about the US. See John McPhee, The Binding Curve of Energy (1974). Seems that proliferation has resumed which cannot be good for any of us.

  11. J. Rubinstein : Thanks for the heads up. My command of English gettin’ worse of late. Shoulda been “nuthin’ ta make the genie go back into the bottle now that it’s out”. Not my expertise, WMDs.

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