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Beltway Confidential

Security theater and Boston

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Beltway Confidential,Philip Klein

In a post over at the New York Times, Ross Douthat hopes that the Boston Marathon incident doesn’t prompt another ratcheting up of security at such events.

He muses:

This kind of security theater is a natural response to terrorism, but it’s a response that since 9/11 we’ve done an absolutely terrible job of reasoning through and then gradually ratcheting back. Today’s attack, on the kind of event that countless cities hold and that even the most omnicompetent police force couldn’t make entirely secure, could easily lead to a further ratchet, a further expansion of preventive (or preventive-seeming) measures, a further intrusion of bureaucratic and paramilitary rituals into the rhythms of everyday life. Or it could be an opportunity to recognize the limits of such measures, the impossibility of achieving perfect security, and the costs of pretending that an extra ring of barriers and inconveniences will suffice to stop a determined evil from finding its way through.

Anybody who has attended a major event since the Sept. 11 attacks or traveled by airplane certainly shares a bit of Douthat’s frustration. One certainly wonders whether it makes sense to have a security policy that keeps changing in response to the latest terrorist plot. This escalation has forced air travelers to take their shoes off, then prevented them from carrying liquids, then imposed the choice of body scans or pat downs – all while allowing 30 million passengers to travel on Amtrak each year without any such security measures.

Though a rethinking of the logic behind the nation’s approach to security is in order, Douthat’s argument comes off as a bit too defeatist. After an incident such as yesterday’s explosion, it’s easy to come out and say that there’s no way to stop “a determined evil.” But on the flip side, there’s no way of measuring which incidents didn’t happen over the past decade because of effective preventive security measures. It’s easier to pull something off at an open event like the Boston Marathon than it would be at the Super Bowl, in which attendees go through much more rigorous security.

Another potential ancillary effect of security theater is that the general focus on threats among the public at large arguably makes them more alert in general and thus helps prevent potential attacks. For instance, it was a street vendor who noticed smoke coming out of an SUV parked in Times Square in 2010 who helped to prevent a potentially fatal car bombing.

As always, there’s a balancing act that we have to consider – what level of disruption to the American way of life are we willing to tolerate for a greater sense of security, and what level of security risk are we willing to accept in exchange for more convenience and freedom of movement.

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