Bag checks, metal detectors, pat downs, surveillance cameras — this is the standard American reaction to events like Boston’s bombing attack, and conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat calls it “Security Theater.” I agree with Douthat (my colleague Phil Klein disagrees with some of Douthat’s conclusions), and I used that term to describe airport security.
“Security theater” means very visible and intrusive security measures that may not be able to stop a bomb or a weapon, but certainly give off the impression that nothing can slip through. It’s not an inherently derogatory term: Maybe security theater fools a potential terrorist. Maybe, as Klein writes, “the general focus on threats among the public at large arguably makes them more alert in general and thus helps prevent potential attacks.”
But Massachusetts State Police Superintendent Col. Tim Alben this morning defended security theater as something that makes people just feel better. Here are his relevant comments:
So I’m speaking to the public you are going to see an enhanced presence from the Boston police, from the state police, from the national guard and from our law enforcement partners through the metropolitan Boston area over the next days and probably longer. That’s not for any particular reason other than to provide some comfort to the public who are using transportation centers or going about their business.
So we are engaged with the MBTA police in the “T” you will see more troopers, you’ll see national guardsmen there. You’ll MBTA police like you do every day, but that presence will be significantly enhanced. We’re doing that for the comfort of the public. We’re looking for cooperation from the public. It’s not to inconvenience anyone, and we don’t think that it will be.
That’s an interesting justification for intrusions on people’s free movement and the expenditure of public funds. Also, is it clear that armed guards with large rifles make people feel more comfortable?