Security theater in action

The terrorist attack on the Zeventem Airport in Brussels yesterday targeted one of the softest spots in the entire transportation system: the security queue at any major airport. Our “shoes off, belt off, take out your laptop, measure your liquids, put your left foot in and shake it all about” security screening process creates another inviting target for anybody looking to get maximum carnage for their effort. Most major airports in the world will let anybody in to the terminal without much or any kind of security check, so there’s nothing really stopping somebody from doing exactly what the attackers did yesterday. In order to prevent terrorists from getting at one target, the plane, we’ve created another one for them: the security line. And this is not the first time a terrorist has taken advantage of easy access to an airport terminal: in 2011, a suicide attack at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport killed dozens of people in that other great airport bottleneck, the baggage claim area.

In the aftermath of Brussels, and because we always like to Do Something whenever a horrible thing happens that actually catches our attention, there’s now talk of changing airport security procedures to put the security check (or a security check, anyway) outside the terminal:

The relative openness of public airport areas in Western Europe contrasts with some in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where travelers’ documents and belongings are checked before they are allowed to enter the airport building.

In Turkey, passengers and bags are screened on entering the terminal and again after check-in. Moscow also checks people at terminal entrances.

“Two terrorists who enter the terminal area with explosive devices, this is undoubtedly a colossal failure,” Pini Schiff, the former security chief at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport and currently the CEO of the Israel Security Association, said in an interview with Israel Radio.

Well, theoretically screening people before they go in would make airport terminals safer. But have you noticed the problem? That Reuters piece goes on to explain it:

“Any movement of the security ‘comb’ to the public entrance of a terminal building would cause congestion, inconvenience and flight delays, while the inevitable resulting queues would themselves present an attractive target,” said Ben Vogel, Editor, IHS Jane’s Airport Review.

A group representing Europe’s airports said kerbside screening would “be moving the target rather than securing it”.

It doesn’t really matter where the bottleneck is, does it? It’s still a target. Inside the terminal, outside the terminal, a mile away from the terminal, it’s all the same target. But if airport security is changed in this way, then it will seem to the public like we’re Doing Something about The Problem, and we can all feel good about that. Until, of course, somebody attacks the new security queue outside the airport, at which point we’ll all have to wonder why we secure the insides of airports but not the outsides of them. What an oversight, you know?

The logical endpoint of all this try-to-feel-good nonsense (and you can substitute any large public gathering place for the airport terminal in terms of risk assessment–a mall, a crowded city square, etc.) is for the TSA to put an x-ray screener and a couple of agents outside everybody’s front, back, and side doors, so that we can all be checked through security literally every time we go outside. It’s the only way to be truly safe.

Or, and just bear with me here, we can accept the fact that, tragic though it may be, everyday life in a non-police state carries with it some risk, usually infinitesimal but never entirely absent, that something bad might happen. Then we can save a lot of money and a lot of hassle trying to implement things that won’t make us any safer but will bring us a little closer to the day when we’re not actually free to come and go as we like.

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