Friday, December 24, 2004

Theatre of the Absurd

Last night I went to Rockefeller Center in New York City to see the Christmas tree, and was startled and somewhat disgusted by the presence of armored police officers carrying assault weapons wandering the crowd, but not for the reasons you might immediately assume.

I have no problems with New York's finest. They've always been there when I needed them, and seemed genuinely interested in repairing a situation gone awry, usually with the least fuss. My distress stems from the difficulty in imagining what exactly these police were prepared for.

I'll digress for a moment to describe another situation in order to expand the point. Recently, I was in Dulles airport outside of Washington DC airport during a security gate closure after a businessman rushed through a metal detector. While the situation was sorted out, thousands of people filled the terminal as the security line backed up to the street.

Last winter, I had to alert TSA personnel twice to get them to do something about an abandoned bag in the middle of the Albany Airport ticket concource.

Recently, vague information of a threat against the Citicorp building in New York City led to all visitors putting their bags on an x-ray belt -- but not walking through a metal detector or being searched, not even to the extent of removing their coats.

A couple of weeks ago, a test of the new corporate welfare -- ahem -- "missile defense" system was postponed because it was cloudy that day.

All this by way of saying, who are we kidding? Examining the recent tactics of the enemies of the United States, we see two primary modes of attack:

1) Fly a plane into a building.
2) Detonate an explosive concealed in one's clothing.

So, in review, let's take each situation in turn:

Paramilitary police in NYC:

What's a cop with an assault weapon and body armor going to do to protect the public against
a) a plane flying into a building, or
b) a suicide bomber, besides

a) nothing and
b) nothing?

Albany Airport:
A bag rests abandoned in a concourse for 10 minutes after two warnings from a concerned passenger before the TSA cares? Did the soldiers (assault weapons, camo) at the upstairs security check help in the least? What would they have done with their heavy armament had the bag turned out to be a weapon?

Dulles Airport:
Who besides me was looking at a crowd of thousands of vulnerable people packed into a tight area that has no security checks on entry, with an easily repeatable method of reproducing the situation?

Do I need to go into this one? Check the bags but not the people? Why not put a sign out front with instructions on bypassing security checks?

Missile Defense:
I hope Kim Jong Il doesn't get the Weather Channel.

"Security" in this country is an expensive joke. This is not an argument for more security, but for less. Certain minimum standards are fine to maintain, but it's a lack of imagination that made the United States vulnerable to attack on September 11, 2001, and it's a lack of imagination that's leaving Americans exposed worldwide.

Security measures as practiced in the USA are tableaus in a theatre of the absurd, designed to scare the bejeesus out of the populace while doing absolutely nothing to make them safer.

The only way to be truly safe is to make people not want to attack you. And you don't approach that goal by occupying other countries, alienating allies, or, at the root, ignoring inconvenient reality.

Last night a man walked by one of the assault police and said, "Glad to see you guys out here tonight," in a tone that indicated he felt safer.

I had the sensation that any minute I'd turn a corner and find painted backdrops and a crew surprised in the act of setting up the next comforting absurdity. People are often accused of fighting the last war, of protecting yesterday's vulnerabilty -- we're not even doing that.

The NYC police are waiting for terrorists to make a frontal ground assault on the city, the TSA is leaving notes in a tiny minority of checked luggage to prove their diligence, Citicorp security is playing with their new detector toy and the Pentagon is dumping money into a project that will never, ever, be used, and will never, ever, do anything but reveal exactly how we should be attacked.

I propose that the Bush Administration launch a new faith-based initiative to have all Americans pray for safety. It'll be at least as effective as everything else the country is doing, and probably just as comforting to, at minumum, the 59 million people who thought Bush and his cronies needed time to finish off -- er -- finish the job.


Blogger Maines said...

Re the bag in the airport: we had a similar experience in Phoenix last year. I saw a carry-on bag left under a chair and called it to the attention of a security officer, who told me to leave it be and she'd check again in a half hour to see if it was still there. Another passenger scooped it up and dumped it in the hands of another security officer to force him to deal with it.

Re TSA security theatre: Well, they are doing something other than just pretending. They are earning bonuses for discovering contraband unrelated to their mission to search for hazards to aircraft. John Perry Barlow, one of the founders of EFF, is involved in a case that he hopes will force the courts to address the Fourth Amendment issue on this. His original post here, and an update here.

Re cops with assault weapons: You think they're useless in Rockefeller Center? How 'bout the Guardsmen in the subway station at Herald Square or in Penn Station at rush hour? Does anyone really believe that nineteen-year-old is going to be able to do anything but mow down members of the public in that setting should he feel he has cause to use that weapon? That sort of security theatre is more horror film in my mind than comforting.

12:25 AM  
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