Friday, August 25, 2006

In Defense of Absurd Security Regulations

Bruce Schneier writes this interesting piece on our response to terrorism. Essentially, he states that by being terrified and obsessing over a relatively uncommon threat, we're giving the terrorists what they want. Most of the points that Schneier makes are dead-on. Those first two cases Schneier lists are downright scary, folks, and indicative of the fact that we all definitely need to chill out. Anyone who objects to flying on a plane with a Muslim simply because of their religion or appearance ought to have their ass kicked.

There is one point I want to address, however. Schneier lampoons security measures like shoe x-rays and liquid removal as "pointless." While I agree that the measures aren't going to stop a well-thought-out terrorist attack, I would argue that the current security measures are not completely pointless. Schneier's idea of fighting terrorism with police work and intelligence is good, and we do that currently, but people don't see it. The mostly cosmetic security measures are there for three reasons. First, they're an idiot check; we may not catch the smart terrorists, but we can definitely stop the stupid ones. Second, it lets potential terrorists know that we're after them, and may therefore serve as something of a deterrent.

But lastly, airport security measures are for the most part cosmetic; they let people know that the government is doing something, and in that way foster confidence that the government can keep us safe. We know that a terrorist plot involving a shampoo bottle is far-fetched and unlikely to succeed (and if you don't, I suggest following the links in Schneier's article to chemists who rightfully ridicule the idea). However, it's good to see evidence that the government is responding to threats instead of being catatonic. If Schneier thinks we're skittish now, imagine what we'd be like if we didn't have that symbolic reassurance.

The problem, of course, arises when people (and the government) become so obsessed with the cosmetic measures that they forget to take the important steps, and in that sense I agree with Schneier. So I don't completely contest the point; I just think that the money going towards new airport security screening methods is not being completely wasted.

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