Safety and security is a commodity that is highly valued in society, you’re often surrounded by large groups of strangers, travelling in large numbers in small machines, like aeroplanes, trains and buses. But are the safety measures in place keeping you safe? Or is it just showmanship, better known as security theater?
The Goal of Terrorism
Whilst the definition of terrorism has shifted depending on who is using the word, it’s typically agreed to mean the the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims. Terrorist groups or networks tend to be small, somewhat unorganised, lacking funding and training that you’d expect from militaries. With this in mind, they cannot engage in fighting with a military, where they will certainly lose, but they can cause ripples of disruption through society much easier. When a government or political group has an ideological enemy, the military expect they may be targeted, they can prepare for this, however civilians do not.
Terrorism in the west is extremely rare, we mourn the tragedy of those that are lost, however, statistically the chances of you meeting your end from a terrorist attack are extremely low. This is because the goal of terrorism isn’t to kill large numbers of people, the clue is in the name, it’s to create terror within the community. It’s to make you scared of mundane things you rely on in your everyday life, like commuting to work, flying to another country for a vacation, or simply walking through your town centre. Below are some figures that illustrate how unlikely you are to die in a terror attack.
Dying from a Cancer: 1 in 7
Dying from any kind of Injury: 1 in 1,820
Dying in a Road Accident: 1 in 8,000
Bee, Snake Venomous Sting: 1 in 100,000
Dying from a Dog Bite: 1 in 700,000
By Falling Coconut: 1 in 250,000,000
Overall average of dying in any kind of terrorist attack worldwide is 1 in 9,300,000
To put this more in to perspective, your odds of winning an Olympic Gold Medal is 1 in 662,000 and yet I’d wager it is less on most people’s radar than terrorism.
It can be argued that terrorism is largely successful in its goal. When an attack occurs in the west, there is a widespread response, mainstream media outlets all over the western world will report the details of the incident, people will publicly mourn, run to give blood, and attend vigils. The nation comes together to show support, and the sense of comradery is palpable. It’s during the media frenzy that we’re reminded not to be scared, to carry on with our daily lives, to not let the terrorists win. This is where security theater gives us an extra boost to continue to persevere with our daily lives, after all, if you know there has been a terror attack in a hotel, and now you have to walk through a metal detector to get into a hotel, you believe it’s less likely to happen to you now.
The Security Theater Show vs. Successfully Stopping Terrorism
In the wake of 9/11 there was, and still continues to be a huge drive for increased security measures at airports. There are restrictions on how much liquid you can bring on to a plane, in Europe this is 100ml bottles, and as many as you can fit into a small see-through bag. You can’t carry a razor on to a plane, but you can carry a disposable razor that is embedded in plastic, is that keeping you safe? The simple answer is no, you can remove a razor from a disposable razor, you can disguise weapons as common objects with ease, and you may sail through security without being noticed anyway. In 2015 it was reported that the TSA misses 95% of weapons and explosives smuggled onboard.
After the 9/11 attacks the National Guard was deployed to US airports, their guns had no bullets, but there presence as authority figures in uniform were enough to give the illusion of safety. In 2010, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that the TSA’s $900,000 behavioral detection program, aimed at detecting terrorists, had not only caught no terrorists, but failed to detect at least 16 people later linked to terrorist activity.
Manchester Airport introduced facial recognition technology in 2008. Originally matches had a threshold of 80%, however a journalist for The Register claimed that the gates were registering so many errors that they ended up being turned off. The threshold was then changed to 30%. Rob Jenkins, a facial recognition expert for Glasgow University tested similar machines and found that the machines were unable to distinguish between Osama Bin Laden and Winona Ryder.
So, if these measures don’t keep us safe, then what does? START (Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism) researchers found that between 1993 and 2016, 109 terror plots were identified. Of these, 13 were successful. The diagram below shows the plots foiled by type of intervention.
How Security theater Makes You Feel Safe
Security theater makes you feel safe because doing something is better than doing nothing. After a terrorist attack, people often feel helpless and afraid, unsure of where is safe to venture. You’re more likely to carry on with your daily life if you see security measures ramped up, people feel safer with more checks and the presence of authority figures.