Bruce Schneier explains why the TSA is a $1 trillion failure

by Lisa Simeone on November 26, 2012


(This is a reprint of a post that was originally published at TSA News on December 22, 2011.)

Those of us who’ve been writing about the TSA for a few years are well familiar with security expert Bruce Schneier. He and others like him, people who actually study actual security, using data, risk assessment, statistical analysis, and empirical evidence, are a balm to our weary psyches, frayed and exhausted as they are from trying to correct the steady flow of misinformation, disinformation, and specious arguments put forth by the TSA and its apologists. 

Ah, but the lizard part of the brain isn’t content. It responds easily to fear; in fact, it revels in it.

So when presented with, for example, an argument based on logic, that primitive part of the brain doesn’t want to hear it. It takes over the rational parts of the brain and shuts out reason and logic.

Other research has found this as well.

That’s why it’s so difficult – indeed often impossible – to sway people who are convinced that the TSA’s security theater (a term Schneier coined, by the way) is Keeping Us Safe.

In an article for Vanity Fair, reporter Charles Mann goes on an airport walkabout with Schneier, who points out, as he has done so many times before, all the pointless procedures that the TSA has put in place, to the tune of billions of dollars, no less.

Will he convince anyone not already up on this stuff? Doubtful, but here are some excerpts anyway:

The terrorist’s goal isn’t to attack an airplane specifically; it’s to sow terror generally. “You spend billions of dollars on the airports and force the terrorists to spend an extra $30 on gas to drive to a hotel or casino and attack it,” Schneier says. “Congratulations!”

Sowing terror is relatively easy. Say “9/11” and watch how quickly people scramble. How eager they are to give up their rights, no matter the psychic or financial cost.

In fact, this “death by a thousand cuts” was explicitly stated by al-Qaeda as its goal. Not to kill thousands or millions of people, but to force the United States to spend more and more and more money in a futile attempt to achieve 100% security.

What the government should be doing is focusing on the terrorists when they are planning their plots. “That’s how the British caught the liquid bombers,” Schneier says. “They never got anywhere near the plane. That’s what you want—not catching them at the last minute as they try to board the flight.”

Indeed, at the airport gate is too late. American intelligence agencies, if they are being intelligent, use the same techniques that have always been used to prevent crime: responsible police work, responsible intelligence gathering. Not shaking down passengers for raspberry jam and snow globes.

To walk through an airport with Bruce Schneier is to see how much change a trillion dollars can wreak. So much inconvenience for so little benefit at such a staggering cost. And directed against a threat that, by any objective standard, is quite modest. Since 9/11, Islamic terrorists have killed just 17 people on American soil, all but four of them victims of an army major turned fanatic who shot fellow soldiers in a rampage at Fort Hood. (The other four were killed by lone-wolf assassins.) During that same period, 200 times as many Americans drowned in their bathtubs. Still more were killed by driving their cars into deer.

Forget deer. There are 35,000 traffic fatalities every year in this country. How many people who defend the TSA do you think have stopped driving? Or taking baths?

“It’s infuriating,” he said, waving my fraudulent boarding pass to indicate the mass of waiting passengers, the humming X-ray machines, the piles of unloaded computers and cell phones on the conveyor belts, the uniformed T.S.A. officers instructing people to remove their shoes and take loose change from their pockets. “We’re spending billions upon billions of dollars doing this—and it is almost entirely pointless. Not only is it not done right, but even if it was done right it would be the wrong thing to do.”

Sing it, Bruce.

Those of us who live in the evidence-based world are content to sing along, for our own satisfaction if nothing else. For we know that millions of people don’t live here.

Instead, they inhabit the Land of Denial. Judging by its popularity, it must be a very happy place.

(Photo: Stickerhead.com)

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