Monday, January 11, 2010

Real security and security rituals

By the time this post publishes, I expect to be through security and in flight from Munich to the US. I'm not looking forward to the security routine. And I'm disturbed at the alarmist language and military solutions that the Obama administration is putting forth in response to the Christmas Day half-wit terrorist attempt.

I want to see the US get smarter and more efficient with airport security measures. That doesn't mean adding new ritual humiliations for passengers that have no real security value. Above all, it means having well-trained security personnel. According to news reports, both in the US and the EU, official checks of airport security show that screeners often miss actual weapons concealed in luggage being taken through the checkpoints. In Germany, airport security is still largely outsourced.

Sen. Jim DeMint is trying to prevent unionization in the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Here in the real world, unionization would push management to do what they should be doing anyway: professionalizing airport security with good training and good pay and benefits to reduce turnover and maximize the number of experienced people doing the job. Having airport security be a starter job or a temporary refuge from unemployment is just not adequate. The best technolgy in the world won't do its job without qualified security people running it.

The better the technology gets, in fact, the more we will need well-trained and well-qualified people using them. Ritual measures like not letting people get up to go pee for the last hour of the flight can have the effect of simultaneously increasing passengers' anxieties while detracting from more effective security measures, even lulling security people into a false sense of security. Even necessary measures can have a large amount of ritual involved, something of which we all should be aware. Because ritual can become like a magical invocation, making us feel safe for the moment when maybe we should be a bit more alert. That's especially important in the case of airline security personnel. Just because they are going through the paces on inspections doesn't mean that they shouldn't be paying attention to other things.

I don't know enough about the potential for psychological profiling, although on the face of it, it makes sense. The Israelis are said to have good experience with it. But then, not every Israeli security measure that is admired by American Republicans is necessarily as effective as claimed. But I do know that with training, security personnel can learn to get better at detecting what might be a weapon, or noticing signs of trouble, like someone displaying high anxiety inappropriately. But this also gets back to the qualifications and training of the security staff. Without that, it can quickly turn into lazy racial profiling or security people interpreting normal irritation at the ritual humiliations of going through the security line as "contempt of cop". Management has a big role, too. If security success starts to be measured by, say, the number of suspicious-looking people searched, then security staff will start looking for excuses to search people rather than focusing on more likely risk factors.

The country-based screening the US just instituted seems to be a good example of a ritual that's likely to insult and annoy people without adding much to real security, or maybe even distracting screeners from more meaningful risks. Juan Cole calls that idea a "truly W.-level stupid thing" for reasons he explains in Obama to fix Security Flaws; but Could he Please Fix Stupid Racial Profiling? Infomred Comment.

One thing that might at least marginally help security that I would like to see instituted anyway is to minimize the amount of luggage passengers are allowed to carry into the cabin. The airlines' fairly recent habit of charging for luggage per piece has encouraged people to take way more stuff into the cabin. It would probably reduce terrorism risks at least marginally to reduce the amount taken into the cabin, and it would certainly make boarding and off-boarding more convenient. Also, there's less heavy stuff to fall on passengers heads that way.

No one seems to be talking any more about having security people on board flights. Did we send them all to Afghanistan?

Sucurity concerns and fears don't make concerns over privacy and personal dignity go away. Giving low-paid, inexperienced people the authorit5y to make anyone they want strip their clothes off is not a pleasant thought.

The terherty body-screen devices detect hidden items by their effect on natural body heat. Objects blocking the bod's normal reflection of the terahertz waves show up in the scanning. These device operate in the wavelenght between infrared light and microwaaves. Sweaty clothes or clothes of some unusual design can yield false positives. The more common x-ray based scanners supposedly subject the person being scanned to something like 1/20 of the excess radiation that a transatlantic passenger experiences during the flight. And the manufacturers of those machines wouldn't lie about that, would they?

But full-body scans using current technology aren't a magic solution, either. For information on some of its limitations, see Confusion reigns as US security is stepped up by Guy Adams The Independent 01/05/10.

On a more macro level, making wars against Muslim countries for no good reason hurts airport security by generating more terrorists. Even if the Obama administration, like its predecessor, prefers to say that Muslim terrorists are just evil and want to kill people and not talk about how their own foreign policies and wars contribute to the motivation of terrorists. Having a motivation doesn't make someone less evil or deadly. But it's worse than foolish not to try to look realistically at factors that animate terrorist attackers.

Of course, the biggest thing that would decouple us from the toxic politics in much of the Middle East would be a crash program of developing alternative evergy sources to oil, renewable ones being the most reliable. How many Middle Eastern and South Asian wars do we have to have before that because a major part of our foreign policy strategy?

Going into panic mode every time some terrorist case pops up has to be an encouragement to terrorism in itself. Because, well, the purpose of terror is to terrorize. Gene Lyons gives an excellent summary of the problems of media terrorism hysteria in Terrorized by the media Salon 01/06/09.

Der Spiegel 1/2010 (04.01.10) reprorts that the bombmaker for Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's underwear bomb came from Saudi Arabia, though they don't cite the source for that particular bit of information. Saudi Arabia, that would be the country from which most of the 9/11 attackers came. Osama bin Laden's home country. Is it even necessary to ask why we aren't bombing or invading Saudi Arabia?

Yemen, on the other hand, is another story. On that point, see The Indepedent editorial, The world must tread carefully in Yemen 01/04/10.

On current security-hysteria matters, see also:

Spencer Ackerman, Three Cheers For A Law Enforcement Approach To Terrorism FDL Attackerman 01/08/10

The Terror Trap The Nation editorial 01/07/10

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