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Oversecured America

By Matthew Yglesias on November 23, 2010 at 10:27 am

"Oversecured America"

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I suppose I agree with Kevin Drum about one aspect of the Transportation Security Administration namely that public outrage about the indignities it imposes seems to me to be 80 percent middle class white people not liking the idea of being placed in the subordinate position of a dominance hierarchy, 19 percent about yearning for America to adopt institutionalized racism as the lodestar of our transportation security policy, and maybe one percent about liberty.

That said, I think everything else Drum says is wrong. I think American air travel security was too tight even before 9/11. I think the main lessons of 9/11 should be that keeping weapons off planes is largely futile and that training of flight crews is highly effective. As of the morning of September 11, 2001 the standing doctrine was to allow hijackers to take control of planes and that’s what happened. As quickly as later that morning doctrine shifted and the passengers and crew of United Flight 93 brought their own plane down, preventing its use as a projectile.

Not just airlines, but America as a whole is, I think, over-secured against terrorist by this kind of weapon screening. One should back up and consider the baseline. If you assume the existence of a person willing to die for Osama bin Laden’s war on America, located within the United States of America, and in possession of a working explosive or firearm, there’s basically nothing stopping him from blowing up the 4/5/6 platform at Union Square or the 54 bus in DC or the Mall of America or even the security line at DFW airport. And yet it doesn’t happen. Does that mean we could get by with no security anywhere? I say: no. But we should start with the idea that the main point of security is simply to push attacks around. The bank has security guards to encourage you to rob the liquor store down the street. Personal security for a handfull of high-ranking government officials makes sense. Better that some madman take a shot at me than take a shot at the President or try to seriously alter the course of American politics by blowing up a restaurant where John Roberts and Sam Alito are having lunch.

But there are real limits to this. Is the life of the Secretary of Agriculture or the Mayor of Indianapolis really that much more valuable than you or me? We should be skeptical. The public choice argument that the government will over-invest in the security of its own facilities and personnel is strong. Airplanes, in this spirit, seem more vulnerable to attack than buses and deserve tougher security. But don’t ask yourself “what amount of hassle and expenditure is worth paying to prevent terrorist attacks,” ask yourself “what amount of hassle and expenditure is worth paying to shift terrorist attacks off airplanes and onto buses”? Much of the resources currently spent on “security” measures would be much better spent on having more police officers. Ordinary violent crime continues to be a very serious problem in America, and reducing its incidence would vastly improve people’s physical security and free up investigatory resources to make serious plots harder to pull off.

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