The Importance of Illusions

After having spent 28 hours traveling I seem to remember most things in a kind of blur – they blend with each other in a haze, making it almost impossible to separate one event from another. One thing is however very clear, and that is, I’m afraid, the only memory that will remain weeks or months from now: security checks.

Copenhagen’s international airport Kastrup, where my journey started, is incredibly “secure” in the “many annoying checks of people and their properties” sense. I do not remember how many times I was checked or “sweeped,” my identity was in question, or my luggage was searched – but I know this happened many, many times.

Arriving at Atlanta international airport meant a few more checks, and to get to my connecting flight to St. Louis I, like everybody else, had to take off my belt and shoes to have them x-rayed. I reckon my carry-on was x-rayed four or five times going from Copenhagen in Denmark to St. Louis, my papers were checked five times, and I had to stand in line for hours (literally) only to get harassed by grumpy men and women in uniform.

The costs of this bid to make flying safe and secure can be nothing but enormous. It is, in a sense, flattering that so much time and money is invested to make my traveling between two cities safe. And with such extensive security one would have to feel safe and secure, wouldn’t one?

No.

The problem with these checks is that they are very costly while they at the same time are likely to be quite worthless. It does feel like security is “tight” when flying, but that is nothing but an illusion caused by the great number of stops where passengers and their luggage is checked.

There is no reason whatsoever to presume more terrorists (I assume terrorism is what they are trying to stifle with these check-ups) are stopped from carrying out their heinous deeds just because passengers’ luggage is check three or four times instead of one. Things don’t change simply because you decide to have another look at them – if there wasn’t a bomb in my bag a minute ago there won’t be one there two hours later either if I was in a controlled environment where it isn’t possible to find bombs. Also, my papers will be the same when checked by security officer #3 as they were when checked by security officers #1 and #2.

The only reason for having repeated checks is that the environment cannot be trusted – if someone is likely to get a bomb into the airport and give it to me, I would be able to have a bomb at security check #2 even if I had no bomb at security check #1. But this would also mean there is no reason to have security checks at all, since someone could pass a bomb to anyone at any time if this was the case.

So the security checks are really worthless unless the environment, in this case the airport, can be fully trusted to always be free of bombs (or whatever they are trying to be free of).

But this isn’t the only problem of these security checks – the real problem is that as soon as the checks are established, the real “bad guys” (whoever they are) will try other ways of accomplishing their goals (whatever they may be). It isn’t reasonable to assume a would-be hijacker will try to get a knife through the x-rays to hijack a plane – he or she would, if hijacking the plane is important enough (and I assume it is, otherwise they wouldn’t risk it), try other strategies.

If making a plane crash is the goal, getting explosives onto the aircraft might be a first thing to try. When it becomes harder to do this, other ways are tried. It might be easier to get a pilot and a fighter jet to shoot down the aircraft instead. And if that is too difficult one might try to shoot it down from the ground. Or the engines can be tampered with. Or the pilots can be fed a poison that will cause certain death in a certain time. If that doesn’t work, then one or many passengers could be infected with a virus causing nasty symptoms in a certain time frame that will cause panic on the aircraft.

The simple truth is: if there is a will, there is a way. Repeating the same procedure doesn’t make the procedure itself less likely to fail – it is rather the opposite: if a certain kind of control procedure is repeated, those wanting to avoid being spotted will have greater incentives to try other methods.

So what are the repeated security checks at airports really about – what or who are they for?

I think the increasing harassment of people traveling by air is nothing but a very expensive way of making people believe someone is doing something. There is fear involved in this issue on two levels: passengers’ fear of terrorism and the government’s fear of being accused for not doing enough.

Passengers’ fear of terrorism is based on the media’s over-reporting on the terror threats (you are, after all, many times more likely to die from a car accident or cancer than from terrorism), and this fear ultimately makes people call for security. Since airplanes were used in the terrorist attacks on 9/11, it is easy to think airplanes may be used in another such attack. This, in turn, makes the air transportation industry very exposed to threats that under normal circumstances could and should be ruled off. But if a greater part of the market fears there is a lack of security when flying great losses can result but from ill-founded rumors that “something” might happen. There is simply a lot at stake; a whole industry can die out.

This risk is of course of importance to those running and profiting from the airlines. But it is at least as important for the government, since a sudden drop in market demand for airline services means a huge technological retrogression in society (which means bad publicity for “the nation”) as well as increased unemployment creating a basis for increased social conflict and causing greater pressure on public finances.

It should thus be concluded that from the point of view of government and airline capital “something” must be done. It should also be concluded that it doesn’t really matter, at least not to the two interests mentioned, that this something is effective, but it must at least create a feeling of security when flying.

If everybody about to board an aircraft is stopped once and asked for papers, they will realize that something is done. But if they are stopped multiple times, when entering the airport, when approaching and entering the gate, and when boarding the plane, then the apprehension of these controls is not that the one and same thing happens over and over – what most people will feel as a result of repeated checks is that security is tighter than if they were stopped only once.

Looking at this from a different point of view, it becomes obvious that the “tightened security” at our airports is nothing but a costly attempt to create an illusion of security rather than a real strategy to make flying safe. The fact is that government-enforced security at airports is fundamentally a reaction to an event that has already taken place. There is no reason to believe the crooks will use the same method again even though it was, in their eyes, successful; they should be more likely to use another – and thus less expected – strategy next time.

What is needed is thus a proactive approach where intelligence efforts and knowledge of what these groups might do next should be important. Doing the same kind of routine multiple times at airports should have minimal effect on security.

But the illusion does serve a purpose: it creates an alibi for the government and the airline corporations. The latter could lose everything from another such attack while the former can gain a whole lot if people’s fears are translated into support for increased powers to “do something,” which means abolished limitations on government powers and restricted or repealed political rights of the citizenry.

The illusion of tighter security at airports is thus a result of mainly two things: the airline corporations playing on the defense to keep the industry alive, and government playing on the offense to gain powers. The costs of this are paid for by passengers spending hours having their bodies and bags searched and their privacy intruded, and taxpayers having to pick up the bill.