I've been enjoying the recent, expanding acknowledgment that most of what we go through in airports can be classified as 'security theater'. This is most clearly demonstrated by the 'take off your shoes' and 'no more than 8 ounces of liquid oh my god he's got a Mountain Dew we're all gonna die' policies under the beep-arch, but the swamp of bullshit that we wade through to catch a flight is actually much thicker than that:
Security theater is typified by make believe measures that make it seem as if authorities are "doing something" about security but that may have little connection to the threats that are most serious or the ways they might be thwarted. In the old days, an example would be the "have these bags been in your possession?…" catechism at airport check-in counters. These days, the reflexive demand to "show ID" before going into buildings or the ignored-by-all recordings in US airports that begin, "This is a security announcement. The threat level is elevated.."
There is a bureaucratic/political explanation for this, which is that no one is likely to be blamed for the cost or inconvenience of such measures, whereas any public official can easily imagine the resulting witch hunt if a "precaution" were removed and… something went wrong.
This seems like one of those minor-cum-major failings of democracy, the genre of laws that are easy vote-getters when they're tightened (Longer prison sentences! More surveillance!) but political cyanide to suggest loosening. The fallout from this phenomenon is strewn throughout the political landscape of the past 15 years, from the 1 percent of the US population in prison to the disaster-inspired, Inquisition-approved airport security apparatus.
At least security at airports is tight enough to weed out the dreg-terrorists. It works on the same level that wrapping a broken lock around your bike wheel makes it look secure to sketchy, opportunistic passers-by. What's amazing to me, to be honest, is how rarely terror attacks occur in other modes of transport.
There is literally no security whatsoever on buses, trains or cars. You can roll a barrel marked 'Flammable when detonated' onto an Amtrak or a Eurostar with no scrutiny, no questions and no wanding. There's nothing stopping you from hijacking a Greyhound right into a mall or a school.
This makes sense, really. Someone could blow you up or stab you pretty much anywhere in public. We generally trust that the people around us don't want to do this, or at least that according to statistics, it will probably be someone else that gets vaporized. So why are planes so different that they need such a severe security paradigm? I know 9/11 happened, but so did Madrid, London and Mumbai. We haven't started scanning commuters for liquids and hollow footwear.
I've been flying a lot lately, and this comes to mind whenever I find myself taking off my belt in the company of 200 zigzagging strangers, all of whom are petrified of tellig a joke or using the word 'napalm' at overhearable volume. I know we need to keep each other safe, but to anyone who takes that task seriously, it's easy to see that our governments don't.