Does Security Do Any Good?

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One thing you notice traveling around is enormous place-to-place variation in security standards. European airports don’t make you remove your shoes before going through a security scan. Germany ministries make you walk through a metal detector and get your bags scanned just like in America, but Danish ministries don’t—indeed there seemed to be no security whatsoever at the two Danish offices I visited. In the United States you sometimes need to go through a security check to visit a museum, which I don’t think I saw at any of the European museums I visited.

It really strikes me as worth wondering exactly how much time and resources we’re wasting on all this. Just think about all the completely soft targets that exist even in the United States of America. If you assume the existence of a person with a functioning explosive device and a desire to massacre innocent people, there’s nothing stopping that person from detonating it on a crowded Chinatown bus or a packed subway platform. To me this overwhelmingly suggests that there are extremely few people in the United States with the means and motive to carry out a terrorist attack and that law enforcement is reasonably good at catching those people. That indicates that the money and time spent doing security screening is basically 100 percent wasted. Even if you could just walk through the door at the State Department and blow up a bomb, it wouldn’t happen any more often than people walk into the Gallery Place Metro Station and blow up bombs.

The alternative hypothesis would be that there’s a substantial number of people being preventing from undertaking terrorist attacks by security systems but who are for some reason unwilling to accept the available soft targets as a “second-best” alternative. But why would that be?

If we reject that implausible hypothesis I think it indicates that aside from wasting time and money one of the main impacts of widely present security theater is inspire in the population an unwarranted level of fear of terrorism. If public facilities were largely unsecured, much as mass transit stations are, and like mass transit stations they didn’t get blown up by terrorists then I think the idea that we need to spend $60-$70 billion a year fighting terrorists in Afghanistan would start to look a little silly. Having all the metal detectors everywhere, however, makes it seem as if there’s some vast quantity of terrorists at the gate being held back by our X-Ray machines.