Alex Massie

A Qualified Defence of Security Theatre

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What is the point of airport security? It's most important job, it seems to me, is not to deter or even prevent terrorism but to remind the public that there is a terrorist threat. If this was true before the Knicker-Bomber it's even more clearly the case now.

That's not just because Mr Abdulmutallab was able to board his flight to Detroit but because it's apparent, if this was ever in doubt, that just three things have improved airline security since 9/11: reinforced cockpit doors, the increased vigilance of other passengers and the incompetence shown by at least some of the would-be bombers. The rest is just security theatre. (See Bruce Schneier for more on this.)

Tedious and dispiriting and muddle-headed as it is, however, this security theatre does serve a purpose. For without it how many people would remember that there really is a threat? Travelling by air - in Britain or the United States - is one of the few occasions in which an average member of the general public will be confronted by some of the realities of the post-9/11 western world.  Security theatre, then, is a massively expensive public information announcement that, while intrusive and often pointless, is actually marginally more subtle than most such campaigns.

Among the downsides to this, mind you, is that we also expect these supposedly-enhanced security systems to be foolproof. But while we have to hope that the intelligence-sharing lessons of this latest attempt are learnt, it would be unwise to suppose that there won't be more such plots in the future and that, eventually, some of them will be successful.

One should neither be sanguine nor terrified by this. It's simply the nature of these things. We have to be lucky all the time; the terrorists only occasionally. We should demand that the intelligence services do their best; we should not expect that to be enough all the time. Sometimes something terrible will happen and sometimes there won't be anyone to blame, no matter how much we cling to the idea that it is is always the case that if someone had done something differently none of this would have happened.

That doesn't seem to be the case in this instance (since, from what we know, this should have been stopped before the plane even took off) but in general the challenge we face is not only in preventing these attacks but in how we respond to them.

One response to attacks on the idea of an open society is to close society. In the immediate aftermath of a successful attack or, as we see this week, even an unsuccessful one, that's always a tempting option. But at some fundamental level doing so concedes defeat and creates exactly the kind of war of civilizations al-Qaeda and its affiliates want to see.

Ultimately defeating this kind of terrorism is both a kind of war and a matter of law enforcement. But in terms of the type of war it is, this isn't one in which casualties are much use in determining the outcome. Because, in the end, it really is a matter of values and the kind of society we wish to live in.

Again, this doesn't mean we shouldn't take sensible precautions, nor that we pretend that the threat is less severe than it is. But, equally, it doesn't require us to get our knickers in a twist every time some lunatic, no matter how malevolent, tries to blow up an airliner. These things are, alas, going to happen and while we need the intelligence services to do their best the important thing is, as a wise piece of government advice once put it, Keep Calm and Carry On.

That being so, ED Kain is right that this is a particularly egregious Maureen Dowd column and while I think Andrew Sullivan's suggestion that Janet Napolitano be fired pour encourager les autres is reasonable, a wholesale purge of the DHS or other agencies seems an over-reaction.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articleSocietyterrorism