Why security and safety theatre is the worst

Safety and security are brilliant. Safety and security theatre is bullshit. If you support safety and security theatre measures, which includes nearly all routine airport security, you are helping to make everyone worse off and nobody safer.

Whilst world-travelling over the last month, I discovered that most European carriers [1] now allow the use of small electronic devices except for actual RF transmitters throughout the flight – including take-off and landing. Which isn’t surprising, because there isn’t and never has been any evidence that they ever have (or indeed potential that they ever could) do anything whatsoever to harm a plane.

However, most Asian and Australian carriers [2] still make you switch off your Kindle during take-off, despite the clear evidence and overseas best practice confirming that this is bullshit. This is solely because of safety theatre, enforcing archaic rules for no reason.

There is some (still only hypothetical) evidence that interference from actual RF transmitters could harm older aircraft, so banning mobile phone use in aircraft which haven’t actively been demonstrated to be phone-safe is for the best. It reflects the evidence-based precautionary rules which have made air travel the second-safest transport mode in existence [3].

However, efforts to provide mobile phone cells on modern aircraft which are certified safe have also flagged on many carriers, because they are required to overfly countries whose non-evidence-based regulatory requirements prevent it (chiefly China and the US, although US carriers do at least provide ground-cell-based wifi domestically). So online internet connectivity is a painful process confined to a few carriers, where it generally doesn’t work very well. Entirely because of dumb, non-evidence-based safety theatre.

Security theatre, meanwhile, is the one thing which makes short-haul flying unequivocally worse than 15 years ago, despite the immense improvements in the in-flight experience. The only thing which can prevent a terrorist attack on a flight is intelligence on terrorist groups. If a terrorist gets anywhere near an aircraft, that is an epic and terrible failure in security policy on a par with letting him blow the damn thing up – which, in any case, he almost certainly will be able to do despite the security theatre currently in place.

When a country is ruled by ignorant fuckwits and its security agencies are incompetent, as with the USA in 2001, evidence which would have got the 9/11 gang arrested even by the Keystone Kops long before any attack took place is ignored, terrorists gain access to planes, and terrible things happen. This is followed (hopefully) by improvements in intelligence, and (certainly, because people are stupid) by additional useless security theatre.

This is why getting a plane to America is now even more unpleasant than it used to be. It’s why you can’t take nail clippers on a plane, despite the fact that even McGyver could do no more harm with them than his nails. Even the US TSA floated the idea of resisting the ban on small pointy objects in 2013, on the grounds of its obvious uselessness, only to be shot down by grandstanding politicians screaming TERRORISM!!!!!.

When a country is not and its security agencies are not, as with the UK in 2006, a major terrorist gang gets intercepted and arrested long before they get anywhere near an aircraft with their ridiculous plot [4], and nothing bad happens at all. This is followed (hopefully) by improvements in intelligence, and (certainly, because people are stupid) by additional useless security theatre.

Which is why you [5] now need to stick your tubes of piles and herpes ointment in a transparent bag for public viewing, drink breast milk in front of random strangers, and pay $6 for a bottle of water airside. It’s why – if flying to the US or Australia – you can’t even buy duty free gin in the departure airport (or are forced to check it as cargo and hope it turns up in some random corner of the arrival airport within a few hours of your luggage).

As with safety theatre rules, security theatre rules don’t apply consistently across countries, because they are all made-up bullshit. If there were any need for them, they would be universal. For any rule which does apply universally – like, say, the transport of lithium batteries in hold luggage, or the prohibition on firearms in the cabin – this reflects the fact that it is evidence-based.

I’m not arguing that we should compromise on safety for the sake of convenience [6]. But if every airline, airport and regulator worldwide adopted EU rules on electronic devices on all aircraft (they’re fine), RF devices on tested aircraft (they’re fine), and Hong Kong’s rules on liquids, belts, and shoes (they’re fine), then flying would be a better experience, and the level of public safety would not be diminished at all.

Instead, for the sake of nothing but appeasing ignorant morons, we still have to arrive two hours early for a plane in order to queue endlessly whilst someone’s grandma gets interrogated over the forgotten nail clippers and syrup of prunes in her handbag.

[1] BA and Ryanair, who represent a decent cross-section. Probably there are some who don’t.
[2] Cathay Pacific and Qantas, likewise.
[3] Rail is safest, obviously.
[4] The plan would have failed due to its physical impossibility even had the plotters made it onto a plane – at best, the leaders could have burned their own dicks off, like the Nigerian gentleman whose Christmas 2009 was even worse than mine. Nonetheless, I accept that preventing people from burning their own dicks off on aeroplanes is for the best.
[5] Yes, you, specifically. You do all of these things. I know you. I know where you live.
[6] This is an argument I am happy to make in general, but I’m not using it in this piece.

4 thoughts on “Why security and safety theatre is the worst

  1. You forgot the bit about having to remove, sometimes in Europe but always in the USA, your belt and shoes. This is the bit that really annoys me the most.

  2. Actually… pedantic point about rail being the safest form of transport… while I may be making the mistake of trusting the research of a novelist, I believe the Otis Elevator Co. claim to be largely responsible for the safest form of mass transit on the planet (based on number of passengers Vs number of serious injuries).

  3. Precisely. This ludicous pantomime is actually the clear demonstration thet out security agencies ate totally incompetent, at detecting and managing the threat.

    One group of people being grilled by TSA ‘grunts’ has a couple of tales of how they invoked panic and worried looks at the interrogation.

    When one TSA person sought to sieze a potential ‘stabbing object’ the owner cheerfuly revealed that this was a minor issue considering that once on the plane he would have near instant access to an axe – standard emergency equipment in the cockpit.

    Another revealed in answer to questionning, that onec on the plane hew would be taking control of the flight – hardly a surprise as he was the pilot, and aprtty dumb line of questionning for a person wearing a uniform jacket with a pile of gold ribbon attached to it.

    The subtle security at airports where you don’t see police strutting around with SA weapoms that if unleased in the concrete glass and steel of an airport would deliver a massive casualty count from riccochetting rounds, is in the floor walkers who blend into the crowd and helpfully ask those looking lost or worried, waht they need to know, at the same time ranking each contact as of interest/no interest.

    By putting scanners and checkpoints in a fixed location the security forces actually make it easier to avoid security checks, by setting up defined boundaries to get past.

    Just like good policing is not measured in the arrest rate, but lack of arrests good security is subtle and has no dramatic detention of a bomber at the 11th hour – but of course that does not give a great auditable ‘total’ by which to review performance.

  4. It’s easy to mock security checks for the crew, but they’re not *entirely* pointless.

    They exist because of incidents like Pacific Southwest 1771, where an off-duty crew member was able to bypass security checks using his ID and uniform (because this was standard policy), smuggle a gun onto a flight, and shoot the pilots.

    In theory, we could get the x-ray chaps to check every crew member’s roster and determine whether they are in a position to single-handedly crash the plane or not, but it’s a hell of a lot easier to just make everyone go through the basic screen (which is more about deterring half-arsed spur-of-moment but still fatal plans like the one which brought down PS1771 than it is about deterring organised terrorism).

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