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Saturday, November 27, 2010

Americans have put up with a lot of security theatre in airports over the past decade. But theatre isn't free. According to a Cornell study, 520 people die every year because they drive so they don't have to have their junk groped.

The US government's reaction to 9/11 has never been rational. Bruce Schneier has been writing about this for some time. It is not a numbers-based approach. It is a story-based approach. Each time we hear a story about terrorists, we devise a security measure to respond to it.
A short history of airport security: We screen for guns and bombs, so the terrorists use box cutters. We confiscate box cutters and corkscrews, so they put explosives in their sneakers. We screen footwear, so they try to use liquids. We confiscate liquids, so they put PETN bombs in their underwear. We roll out full-body scanners, even though they wouldn’t have caught the Underwear Bomber, so they put a bomb in a printer cartridge. We ban printer cartridges over 16 ounces — the level of magical thinking here is amazing — and they’re going to do something else.

This is a stupid game, and we should stop playing it.

It’s not even a fair game. It’s not that the terrorist picks an attack and we pick a defense, and we see who wins. It’s that we pick a defense, and then the terrorists look at our defense and pick an attack designed to get around it. Our security measures only work if we happen to guess the plot correctly. If we get it wrong, we’ve wasted our money. This isn’t security; it’s security theater.

Understanding how stories work also means understanding where they don't work. Sitting around the campfire talking about how Og killed the tiger helps us all survive the next tiger. But not if the tiger is listening to the story.

I think that human beings are hardwired to understand the world through stories, just as we're hardwired to learn language. I think there is a part of our brain architecture that enables us to make stories out of what happens in the world.

But not everything should be boiled down into a story. What makes a story compelling does not also make it true. But we have a tendency as a species to prefer a compelling story to a boring (or frustrating, or fearsome) truth.

Stories are wonderful. They help us understand the world. You watch a movie about a relationship and maybe you take away an insight about your own relationship. But they are not a substitute for rational thought.



I think the problem isn't a narrative approach, but an inaccurate or incomplete narrative.

By Blogger Unknown, at 3:13 PM  

I was making a similar point with a co-worker recently. This has nothing to do with keeping us safe; it's about creating the fiction that they're keeping us safe. Israel's airport security system (And I have real reservations about most Israeli security practices.) is about keeping people safe.

What's supposed to happen when a bomber shows up with a bomb up his ass? Are we supposed to drop our pants, bend over and grab our cheeks? How many violations and indignities are we supposed to suffer in this system? Also, why in the hell is Canada emulating every stupid American practice?

Since this is a film blog, I'll point out that "The Dark Knight" has already showed us the end game in the whole suicide bomber scheme, when someone arrived with a surgically implanted bomb. What would the TSA do to us if that ever became a reality?

By Blogger David, at 1:06 PM  

I think this is an excellent point about how the way we perceive and respond to threats often has nothing to say about the threats themselves, but lots to say about the long march of evolution.

Jason Zweig among others has done an excellent job of summarizing a lot of the neuropsychology behind these types of things, in his case with regards to money and our predisposition to see patterns, when none are there...

By Blogger Hepworks, at 10:12 AM  

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