I’ve heard the term “security theater” used several times to describe the aviation security system. I’m not completely sure where or who started the term, but it’s worthy of addressing because it seems to get used by various experts and non-experts whenever the media needs a quick sound bite. But, let’s take a hard look at this term as related to aviation security.
To loosely define the term, security theater is used to imply that we do not have any real security in aviation, and that everything we do is smoke and mirrors. It’s done to give out the perception to the public that we’re doing something but we’re really not doing anything to reduce risk.
First, I disagree that ALL of the layers of the security system are pure “security theater.” We have done a lot to protect the system and while there are still gaping-holes in certain areas, we have made the pathways more difficult to traverse for those that want to do harm. Second, I agree that there ARE layers of the security system that are security theater, but that this may not be a bad thing all the time.
Author and security expert Gavin DeBecker discussed two kinds of security measures in his 2002 book, Fear Less: Real Truth About Risk, Safety, and Security in a Time of Terrorism. The first type makes the public feel safer, like deploying the National Guard to airports after 9/11. The second type actually reduces risk and in some cases, makes the public feel safer, like screening all checked baggage. While the preference is to implement “type-two” security measures, there is value to the first type. Measures used to give the perception that a pathway is closed, without actually closing it, has their place.
Using the analogy of protecting your house to make the point, think about when you go on vacation. If you’re following just basic security protocols, you’ll put some timers on lights in your house, leave the porch light on, have neighbors take in your paper and mail and if you’re in the snow belt, shovel your driveway if it snows. All of these methods do not really protect your house from a burglar if one decides to break-in, but are designed to give the appearance that someone is home. These type-one measures don’t necessarily reduce much risk but do make you feel a little better and give the appearance of security. Hopefully, it’s enough of an appearance that the bad guy will go somewhere else.
If you wanted to reduce risk, DeBecker’s second type of security, you would install an alarm, order extra police patrols, leave the dog in the house (with a dog door for necessities), lock the windows and doors, and maybe even have someone house sit. These type 2 measures reduce the chances you will get robbed, and make you feel safer. Of course, you could just stay at home, sitting with your gun in the middle of the living room, but then you wouldn’t get the vacation and there is still a chance a committed burglar could break in. Extending this metaphor, remember that we still need to fly and there are security risks when we do that. If you want to eliminate all security risks from flying, then stop flying.
Immediately after 9/11 we saw some security theater when members of the National Guard were deployed to the nation’s airports. Their presence likely did nothing to prevent a hijacking or a bombing and its questionable whether they were even a real deterrence to what they could have been used for, protecting the airport terminal from attack, but their presence did give the traveling public a sense of confidence and helped get them flying again.
The advantage of security theater is that is costs less, keeps the public flying and creates a sense of normacly. Remember, the real goal of terrorism is not primarily to destroy lives and property but to destroy the economy and stability of a nation. It’s important that we keep flying and not let our fears cause us to overreact. Obviously, we need to do those REAL security measures that reduce risk and provide actual layers (i.e. locking doors, alarm systems – to continue our analogy), so I’m NOT advocating that the theatrics is all we should do, but they are a part of an overall strategy.