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So Much Security Theater, So Little Common Sense
I wrote this article in January, 2015: Charlie Hebdo march proves Paris wouldn’t have the first clue how to become a proper police state:
Today was one of those cold and beautiful winter days in Paris that calls to mind a 19th Century painting by Caillebotte. The police had promised “extreme security measures” for the rally: 150 plainclothes officers, 20 teams of snipers, 56 motorcycle teams, and 24 mobile units. When I read this, I didn’t know whether to be moved or horrified.
That is nothing—nothing—like what you need to protect a crowd of the predicted size from a determined group of terrorists. Particularly since their sleeper units—we have been told by the same authorities—may recently have been activated. It is deeply moving that Paris simply has no idea how to become a proper police state. And it also just as clear this city must learn what “extreme security” looks like—it doesn’t look like Paris; and it doesn’t look like this.
It’s been two and a half years since then, and I see little sign that Paris is learning. This is on my mind today for obvious reasons. I’m frustrated that I still see, in Paris, so much security theater and so little common sense. I don’t understand what’s preventing people from spotting the difference.
I sent a frustrated email to a friend this morning elaborating on this complaint. I’m not going to reproduce it because I discussed specific sites that seem to me poorly defended and illustrated my point with photos and maps. The last thing I want to do is hand some lunatic a guide to committing terrorism in Paris, complete with photos and maps. So to illustrate what I mean, I’ve made up the example below. I’ve invented it from whole cloth. It’s fiction. The photo below does not correspond to any real thing or building in Paris. In fact, it isn’t even in France. It’s the Primatial Palace in Brataslava. I’m just showing you something roughly similar to the scenes that vex me.
I have absolutely no idea what the Primatial Palace is really used for, or what security is really like around the building.
Pretend, though, that the photo above depicts a famous museum or a concert hall or a government building in Paris. Imagine that outside the building, you see roughly what you do in the photo above: a pretty esplanade, only with more tourists and heavier foot traffic. Imagine shops, cafes, maybe a church on the other side. Imagine that cars, bikes, motorcycles and delivery trucks enter and exit the square all day long, and that there’s no way to screen them without making commerce — in a historic area that’s central to the city’s life — impossible. Imagine, as in the photo above, that there are no barriers between the square and the front door of the building.
Now imagine a long line of people — about two hundred of them — waiting to enter that building. Not really an orderly, single-file line, more like a large crowd. They’re all standing outside. Why are they standing outside? Because when they walk through the front door, they’re going to “go through security.” That means they’ll go through a rough simulation of airport-style screening: bags through a scanner, they’ll walk through a metal detector, and if the guards are feeling their oats, they may even be asked to take off their belt or their shoes. It’s not really like airport security, in that it’s more chaotic. It doesn’t seem as if the guards are fully paying attention. The bags are rolling through the scanner while they chat with each other, and it doesn’t look to me as if they’re keeping their eyes, non-stop, on the screens — but it’s not nothing. It does make the building a more challenging target for a terrorist, even if not a completely impenetrable one, and that’s good. Or it’s good, if you’re inside the building. It means that if I were a terrorist, I’d probably think, “Why make this harder than it has to be? Let’s look for an easier target.”
And where would I find it? Why, just outside the building. Where the targets have all been helpfully gathered for me, in one place.
In other words, the ritual of “going through security” creates a new security hazard, one that wasn’t there before. Yes, you’re almost certainly safer once you get inside the building, but that isn’t the point of having “security,” is it?
My guess is that the owners or managers of the building decided to have people “go through security” like that because they want visitors to feel safe. But obviously, no one asked, “Will this actually make them more safe? Or will it just make them feel more safe?”
Imagine a very visible police presence on the square, and I would guess a large invisible one as well. I’m sure they have an eye out for people who “look suspicious.” This, too, is better than nothing — but not by a whole lot. If you wanted to kill a lot of people, all you’d have to do is walk up to that crowd, or drive up on your motorcycle, with a bomb in your backpack or your suitcase. Because it’s a historic area, it’s visited by thousands of tourists daily. Someone with a suitcase wouldn’t look inherently look suspicious. The only thing that would make you “look suspicious” (beyond being young and male) is your body language. I don’t discount the value of scanning people’s faces and body language to see if they look nervous; this is a useful, proven tool of counterterrorism. It can save lives. It’s just far from foolproof.
So what would I do if I were in charge? I’d either get rid of the “security” inside the front door, or I’d keep it, but do it right. That means — even though it would be ugly, and it would impede traffic, both foot and vehicular — putting a physical barrier of some kind between the crowd I’ve created as a result of my “security” and the rest of the square. If there were a barrier of some kind, anyone who tried to approach to the people waiting online would quickly draw attention as “up to no good.” I’d start the security screening as soon as the line begins to form outside: Security officials should be outside the building, asking everyone in the line to open their bags for inspection, asking them questions about why they’re trying to enter the building, and looking at them closely for signs of nervousness or stories that don’t add up.
Otherwise, get rid of the “security.” It’s not fixing anything, it’s inconveniencing people, and it’s making them stupid.
Everywhere in Paris, I see “security” that’s so poorly-conceived that it doesn’t make me feel more secure, and in fact has the opposite effect. I don’t think the terrorist threat should be exaggerated, but I think it’s real. It should be mitigated, where possible, by common sense.
But it often isn’t. For example: There’s no point in replacing Paris’s garbage cans with these:
If — literally on the same block! — you’ve got three of these:
Nor is there any point to blowing up every bit of unattended luggage at the airport and filling the streets with the military if the military is going to walk, solemnly, right past the unattended luggage that’s regularly left in the streets. It’s left, I suppose, by clueless tourists who think it’s fine to leave their luggage on the street while they walk upstairs to see if there’s a vacancy in the hotel, or by homeless people who don’t feel like bringing their worldly possessions with them when they shop for groceries; I don’t really know who’s leaving their luggage in the street, frankly, but for reasons I can’t fathom, I regularly walk past unattended luggage. I’m sick of it. It tells me the whole culture of security in this city is wrong: an unattended suitcase shouldn’t last a nanosecond in the middle of a busy street in Paris. Everyone with a cellphone, that’s to say everyone, should be calling the police the second they see it, and it should be destroyed immediately. Why put the military on the street if it’s just going to wander right past something like that? What’s the point of replacing all the trash cans with transparent plastic bags if you make an exception for all the trash cans on wheels?
This sort of thing all adds up, in my mind, to evidence of something, but I honestly don’t know what it is. It’s certainly not a denial that a threat exists; all these so-called security measures are clearly a response to widespread, and justified, fear. The public clearly does want to see that the state is “doing something,” and that the managers of the buildings they enter are “doing something.” The sight of the military patrolling looks right to them, and makes them feel safer. But perhaps the public doesn’t want to be too inconvenienced by it — not to the point of having to carry their trash to the street in plastic bags. And perhaps the public doesn’t want to make certain concessions to terrorism: Perhaps they don’t want to see fences in their historic city squares; perhaps that just feels like one concession too many. Perhaps they don’t want confused tourists to be told that unless they keep their bags with them at all times, their bags will be destroyed — not just in the airport, but everywhere. Perhaps certain measures, arbitrarily, make people feel less safe — even if they would, in fact, make them more safe. I just don’t know.
Asking people to think rationally about terrorism in the wake of a major terrorist attack is pointless and inhuman. I’m not capable of thinking about it rationally right now, so I can’t really ask my readers to be. Still, Paris has had a bit of time to recover since the last major attack. And no one is in much doubt there will be another one. Why, then, do I see so few signs of a rational approach to risk mitigation here?
Published in General
So the security jam up would start at that point. As Mark Steyn has pointed out, we get a proliferation of ever more remote security lines….
No it wouldn’t, if done right. I’ve seen this done in Turkey and Israel (which is why I know about it). It’s not foolproof, but it’s a pretty standard technique. It’s also closer to what you’ll see around US embassies around the world, though we get more choice about where to situate them in the first place.
I remember when some computer people were recommending that as the place for security, in this case the corporate border. To me it seemed like protecting the gold in Fort Knox by running gun boats up and down the Ohio River. You can do that and it might even help, but it’s still a good idea to lock the inside doors.
For most of my life, I was able to go to downtown Philadelphia and walk through Independence Hall. Until I was 16, the Liberty Bell was just sitting there – they moved it during the Bicentennial in 1976. The rooms where they actually debated and passed the Declaration and Constitution are right there off the central hallway. You could look in and imagine John Adams being a pain in the ass.
I happened to go there a few years ago – after 9/11 – for my son’s field trip from Baltimore. Now they had “security” laid out by metal barriers to corral the visitors into rigid lines into the building. It was like the lines at any amusement park where you zigzag your way through endless layers of metal railings. One of my fellow parent-chaperones said how strange it was that in the very birthplace of American personal liberty, hundreds of schoolchildren were learning more about how to obey regulations than anything else. When you’re standing for an hour in line (to enter the literal birthplace of American liberty, mind you), all so that security guards could measure the size of your water bottle to see if it matched regulations, you really had to question what liberty really means.
And hundreds of visitors were compacted into utterly immobile clusters – it made the security guards’ job easier, you know, checking 12-year olds for Uzis. If you were in the middle of the line, you had no mobility, You were a sitting duck. One grenade would have killed two or three dozen.
Ataturk airport bombing.
And Israel went a long way towards solving their security problems with …. a wall and a strict policy of who gets to enter Israel . Oh yeah, and they profile big time.
Finally there a millions of soft targets in our society. Whatever we do, they will just modify the tactics. See truck attacks. Are we going to get rid of large trucks and crowds?
I think we’ve all had this feeling of utter dismay upon seeing “security” around things we used to do completely freely. It makes me wonder if one reason I’m seeing this kind of half-assed security everywhere is that it’s a form of passive resistance: “Rationally, we do understand why we need this. But we don’t want any of this, at all …. and therefore we’re going to do it badly.”
That would not, obviously, be rational. But it would be oh-so-human. And it might explain why I keep seeing badly-executed security strategies.
Basically I see this as more re arranging of the deck chairs while ignoring the hole below the waterline that’s sinking us.
My aunt and uncle used to go to West Point for free concerts conducted by the cadets. After 9/11, Security started pawing through my aunt’s knitting bag and disallowed her knitting needles and collapsible scissors, because a little old lady just might hijack a military academy if armed with such dangerous implements.
Good thing she left her Glock at home.
For me, it’s the sense that all of this theater is simply the facility’s way of appeasing lawyers who might sue after an attack. Did you do everything possible to protect your visitors and customers? And then it becomes the obfuscation between reasonable steps versus absolutist fear of lawsuits.
That’s not security, that’s lawyer insurance. Cover thine posterior.
And the security forces aren’t usually Liam Neeson who work security because they have a particular set of skills. (Those guys get hired privately.) The security forces are usually hired because they could (a) pass the clearance and (b) were willing to work at these lousy wages. Funneling everyone through narrow channels is only effective as a way to make a show of “doing something” to appease the lawyers.
Besides, the obvious lesson of Manchester is that, given a predictable set of procedures, the truly bad guys will adjust. That’s the first rule of strategy: anticipate that the other guy will adjust. If anything, a long term security strategy doesn’t pin all of its hopes on one routine or one system.
Benjamin Netanyahu: “President Trump is right. I built a wall along Israel’s southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration. Great idea.”
You raise interesting questions. Like most things we get wrong because we centralize control, maybe security ought not be so centralized with one set of rules fits all. And institutions can find better ways to spread out the crowds. I’m reminded of the Snow Mobile pollution issue the Park Service created by selling access at the point of access at the time of access. Central authorities can’t deal with very many variables and cities present an infinity of them. So it’s just not lack of common sense. I’m also reminded of a wall and truck bomb barriers tax payers funded around one of our embassies in Latin America. I raised hell and was told that I’d personally pay for any delays. It was built there as in every other embassy. Well when the kind of attack we could expect there, no truck bombers, not muslims, no terrorists, the mob used the wall to better hurl molotov cocktails. Centralized State Department Security requirements developed to deal with a truck bomb in the M.E. were imposed at every embassy in the world. I suppose CYA is always a rational strategy for the person whose A is ever so slightly at risk.
Yes, but if you are as PC as Claire, it would never occur to you.
Likewise, seeing the elderly who can barely bend over having to sit down and take off their supportive shoes and hand them to the security before boarding, yet I saw people who should have been stopped, waved through on one flight in Fort Walton Beach airport. I guess they didn’t want to be accused of profiling.
I agree with Kozak and Trump. If the Muslim leadership are not going to seriously denounce this caliphate against the West, as well as the rest of the world, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and every country has to worry and fear, and try to outsmart the next attack in a beautiful place like Paris, then its time to change the rules. Walls, screening, deportations, banning cell phones, laptops, etc. on planes, drying up funding to countries that do not cooperate, and other measures to send a message that in free countries, you are not welcome unless you honor the laws of the country you are living in, integrate if you plan to stay, contribute. We can see by this post that standard old methods are outdated and so are the politically correct speeches from the politicians. There is no other group, faith, ideology that is causing so much destruction, only one.
I visited Israel a few years ago.
And one of my impressions was that this was a very rich country in which most of the people were not that well off.
That sounds like a contradiction, but it isn’t. Israel has, by all accounts, an excellent health system. They have all the modern accoutrements. The museums are amazing. The country, as a whole, seems to be doing well.
But there were many signs that individuals and families did not have that much money. There were lots of shops selling fabric, which means quite a few people still sew their own clothes. There were lots of little repair shops, which means people get things repaired rather than buying them new.
There can be a lot of reasons for this.
But one Israeli explained it to me this way: The museums are fantastic, but you rarely see large numbers of Israelis in them because, he said, the price of the entry tickets was beyond what a lot of Israeli families can easily afford. And, he said, that is partly because Israel has to spend so much on security.
I don’t know the figures but I would guess the number of Israelis that work in some type of security job is very high. And that puts an added cost onto every business.
Really, really good security requires you to spend a lot of money. And in the long run, that means a lower standard of living for everyone.
Maybe those who know Israel better than I do can either confirm this, or disagree?
I keep writing this, keep getting ignored. Even with Trump in the White House, no POTUS has the stones to try a certain-to-succeed strategy.
Islamic terror can be ended easily. Five quick steps.
This is utterly necessary to end Islamic terrorism. An aggressor must face overwhelming, disproportionate force to be stopped. I reference Dresden, Berlin, Hamburg, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those abominations were necessary to end WW2.
Under the Dr Robert plan, the clash of civilizations would have ended about two weeks after 9-11. Thousands of innocent Americans, Europeans, and especially muslims now dead would be enjoying life, we would not have lost so many small civil liberties (anyone really enjoy being searched at the airport?), Barack Obama would never have been elected and western civilization would now be ascendant rather than cowering.
And North Korea would not be emitting a peep.
What kind of society is Europe creating I wonder where this type of fear and paranoia is justified? Is this the Paris of ten years ago? Twenty? If one was strolling down the Champs-Élysées in the 1980s would this be a rational mode of behavior or would residents of that era imagine you mad for proposing it?
Now modify this to something that has a chance in hell of ever being adopted. Forget nuclear that would not be done and for good reason, bunker busters and drones but targeted at guilty folks, not innocents, are good enough as are black ops where we can’t drop bombs. Just snatch them and take them to Cuba, we still have it. We stopped doing this because Obama wanted to give Guantanamo back. Snatching is actually legal just produce a sealed indictment covering conspiracies to commit terror. As to visas, we can deal with that by “extreme vetting” and knowing who is here and who has overstayed their visa or violated presumptions when issued resident visas– that they were not likely to become public charges, over throw or plot to over throw our governments etc. These are matters of definition and are doable within existing law and don’t even have to be broadcast, indeed better not broadcast, just done. They aren’t likely either, but better than a snow ball in hell.
I think a big part of the problem is that we think our way is normal. It’s normal to wait in line for a coffee. It’s abnormal to push your way onto a bus. It’s normal to walk through the ropes at the bank despite being the only customer. It’s abnormal to witness a bank robbery.
But it’s precisely the opposite. Our way of life is insane. Their way is normal.
If we continue to think our way is normal then we’ll keep coming up with our way solutions. Like orderly rules.
Level Mecca? Sounds good to me. War is hell. And we SHOULD BE at war. Sounds harsh, but in the long run more lives are saved and everyone can peacefully live their lives without the constant fear we now have. Further, it is the only way to save western civilization.
My dear Dr Berlinski,
3 years ago when it was clear that we had 3M people in Turkey, 1M in Lebanon, and 1M in Jordan we should have realized there would be no way to.vet them. We could have sent them massive amounts of humanitarian aid.
Yes I’m sure there is a best way to do security. I just don’ t care that much right now.
Probably just watching an Israeli would be the best thing to do.
The Old Testament gets a lot of flack for its portrayal of how God demands the Israelites to conduct war. It ain’t pretty.
There are some apologetics around those passages – war is ugly so don’t enter into it frivolously. Sometimes war is necessary, so do it right when you need to do it and do it fast so you have as few casualties over as small a time as possible.
The Israelites thought God was a meanie head, too, so they didn’t follow his rules. Half their issues were because they ignored God.
That’s funny because they let me take circular knitting needles on a plane (nice little garrote, there) but not my nail scissors.
I have no moral qualms about going to war with ISIS since they hold territory, or Iran if they get unambiguously close to a bomb, I just don’t know what to do, to whom or where with what everywhere else which is most of the world and all over the west. We need a foreign policy which includes military, an immigration policy which includes counter terrorism and these flow out of a vision and to behold any vision we need to see clearly. We used to be able to do that and haven’t for about 4 decades.
What kind of disorderly rules were you thinking?
WWII was ugly – our country ignored warnings from Europe and then Hitler was well under way. When we finally got serious, it was no holds barred. @casey is right – the old rules don’t work, and the two ways of life are incompatible. We allow people in free societies to worship as they please, but if that belief system has a world wide following that says convert or die, do they (Muslims) not have a responsibility to clarify and stop it within their own system/ranks/teachings?
Welcome back Jim! I hope all is well with you and that the procedure was a success!
What we think they should do is irrelevant. The issue is what are we to do about it, here and as we use our power abroad.
Quite apart from fixing the whole problem, might I just point out that in the aftermath of 9/11, America got all hopped up about Homeland Security and funds formerly available for community policing got diverted, instead, to boondoggles like very fancy Border Patrol facilities replacing the former, frame buildings in Jackman, Maine…as if Mohammad Atta would have been foiled if only the BP building was cooler.
Community policing IS counter-terrorism. I’m inclined to agree that we should stop importing people from sketchy areas until we have a handle on this, but given that the Manchester bomber was (apparently) a Brit of Libyan descent, the bad guys are already here. So let’s make it a whole lot more difficult for the bad guys: no more “no go” areas, lots of public pressure to conform to reasonable, Western standards of behavior (e.g. no oppressing or mutilating women) and for God’s sake, no more mealy-mouthed political correctness that even in rural Maine makes “see something, say something” into a friggin’ joke. There has to be social and legal cover for people saying “yo, copper, that guy looks like a no-good-nik!” if the no-good-niks are to be foiled.
Exactly. Mark Steyn made this statement in reference to the Belgium bombings.