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Security Theater

In The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg has an excellent article from 2008 about how surprisingly easy it is to circumvent airport security. Or as he puts it “Airport security in America is a sham — “security theater” designed to make travelers feel better.”

Just to see if it could be done, he carried on various dangerous items, including pocketknives, pocket tools, lengths of rope, cigarette lighters, and (of course) box cutters. To show how easy it is to carry liquids onto a flight, he used a “beer belly” — a bladder on a sling with a drinking tube sold to enable people sneak alcohol into football games — to smuggle two cans’ worth of Bud Light onto a flight. And just for fun, he also carried on a three-by-four-foot Hezbollah flag (featuring an upraised fist holding an AK-47), matches from hotels in Beirut and Peshawar, an “Osama Bin Laden, Hero of Islam” T-shirt, and even an inflatable Yasir Arafat doll. Goldberg discusses how easy it is to print fake boarding passes and use them to fly, even if you are on the TSA no-fly list. He also deliberately tried to act suspicious, in order to test the TSA’s program that is supposed to spot terrorists from their behavior.

The article reminded me of my own experiences with airport security. Like the time I thought I had lost my pocket knife, but it turns out that it was in an outside pocket of my carry-on bag and it (unknown to me) accompanied me through airport security on several domestic and international flights before anyone noticed it. But my favorite time was when I walked off a flight from Havana Cuba to Miami (yes, I was in Cuba legally) and because there was less than an hour before my next flight, the airline had me carry on my normally checked bag, which contained, in addition to my pocket knife, some tools, various liquids, and (of course) a bunch of illegal cigars. I was even subjected to a hand search of my bag at the gate, and they didn’t notice a thing. Remember that I had just left a country that is on the “Axis of Evil” list.

Bottom line? post 9/11 airport security is a stunning waste of time and (lots of) money. The TSA has never stopped an actual terrorist from boarding a flight. The airport security measures that make flying such a pain are pretty much there just for show.

Feel safer?



  1. Michael wrote:

    By the way, you did notice that article was two years old, right? Also, I just want to emphasize that it’s not Goldberg who should be patted on the back for this article. It’s really just highlighting the work that Bruce Schneier has been doing for years (“security theater” is his term). If you’re really interested in security, what works, what’s a waste, etc., check out Schneier’s blog at

    Friday, November 12, 2010 at 12:45 pm | Permalink
  2. Michael wrote:

    One more thing (because I’m scatter-brained and just thought of it…), here’s a CNN article from today about the scanners being installed. My favorite paragraph:

    “The probability of dying from radiation from a body scanner and that of being killed in a terror attack are roughly the same, he said. About one in 30 million.”

    Dying from the radiation can either occur because you are highly susceptible (insanely rare) or because the machine malfunctions, emitting large doses of radiation (see Therac-25). So, to prevent the rare risk of death by terrorism, the TSA is mandating we accept the rare (but identical!) risk of death by radiation. Umm, wouldn’t you still be dead either way?

    Friday, November 12, 2010 at 12:50 pm | Permalink
  3. patriotsgt wrote:

    Ah yes, but TSA is very good at stopping 5 year olds and little old ladies whose names appear on the no fly list. Now i’ll admit, they let a few underwear bombers get through, but you can’t get um all. Go TSA, I hope they unionize then no one will be able to get rid of them.

    Friday, November 12, 2010 at 1:05 pm | Permalink
  4. starluna wrote:

    I would like to point out that Jeffrey Goldberg is white. Therefore, I am totally not surprised that he can get through security with all of these things.

    My olive-skinned, long haired, Mexican American husband, on the other hand, gets “randomly” and quite thoroughly checked in just about every flight he goes on. Once, TSA almost made him take out a Christmas present for his mom (a glass thing that looks like an amethyst about the size of a child’s fist) until I, with all my white skin privilege, walked over and intervened. I didn’t have to even mention the law degree.

    Friday, November 12, 2010 at 1:28 pm | Permalink
  5. Don wrote:

    And then there was the time in 2002 when I was selected as one of those needing a thorough screening while boarding a domestic flight in Denver. After emptying out my pockets and allowing the TSA to go through my other belongings, the inspector identified a serious threat to the security of my flight: I had a P38 on my key ring. Now, a P38 is a small, collapsible can opener that is provided to those lucky enough to eat C Rations, which I got to do many times while fighting fires in remote places (we didn’t have Hollywood caterers then). It’s about 1 inch long with a foldable cutting surface about 1/2 inch long. I was asked to take it off my key ring and turn it over to the TSA employee. This item had flown with me dozens of times after 9/11 with nary a mention. Now I had a potential highjack capable weapon.

    I explained that the P38 in question had been on my key ring for 30 years and that I carried it still, as a good luck token. This weakened the inspector’s resolve and he allowed me to keep it. Being the law abiding citizen that I am, I didn’t put the P38 back on my key ring, not that I would ever use it as a weapon, but to ensure that a terrorist, spying my P38, wouldn’t grab it and commit some heinous act, making me an accomplice.

    Friday, November 12, 2010 at 2:00 pm | Permalink
  6. Bard wrote:

    wasn’t Dubya’s Axis of Evil Iraq, Iran and North Korea? Or did he expand it later?

    Friday, November 12, 2010 at 2:01 pm | Permalink
  7. Michael wrote:

    Don’s story reminds me of my own experience with a key ring “weapon.” When it was trendy, I used to smoke cigars with my friends. Several of us bought “bullet cutters,” which are made from .38-caliber bullets. The casing slides off, and there’s a round edge inside that you can use to punch a hole in the cigar. The base of the bullet has been modified to be attached to a key ring. Well, I forgot to take it off my keys before a trip, and yeah… I tried to explain and even showed him how it worked. Of course, I didn’t even have a way to fire it if I wanted to. No avail.

    Friday, November 12, 2010 at 2:18 pm | Permalink
  8. Iron Knee wrote:

    Bard, the “original” axis of evil was Iraq, Iran, and N. Korea, but then we took over Iraq, so John Bolton added a few other countries: Libya, Syria, and Cuba.

    The addition of Cuba was such a joke — are they going to invade us on inflatable rafts carrying machetes?

    Friday, November 12, 2010 at 9:59 pm | Permalink
  9. Effisland wrote:

    How ironic is this?

    Obviously the Postal Service is archaic and in this day and age of the internet, there is no more real need for a national-based mail delivery service.

    Why is the government delivering mail anyway? Don’t most people use a courier if its something important?

    Just saying if they are looking for somewhere to start cutting, this may be a good place. Employees will end up making more money working for small private companies owned by the employees….

    Friday, November 12, 2010 at 10:47 pm | Permalink
  10. Some of the people on reddit are trying to stop some of the new TSA rules.

    Their website is here

    The sub-reddit is here

    Sounds like some of you might be interested.

    Saturday, November 13, 2010 at 6:03 am | Permalink
  11. starluna wrote:

    I still use the USPS. It’s less expensive and more reliable than the private carriers. For $45 I just send an enormous box of stuff to my sister with her first newborn. It is tracked and gets there in 3 days. I would have had to pay significantly more for UPS or FedEx to do the same.

    I also prefer to get my parcels through USPS. I’m not held hostage to the delivery driver’s schedules and if I’m not home, they hold it at the local office until I go to pick it up. The service is so much better with USPS, I never understood why anyone would not use it.

    Saturday, November 13, 2010 at 8:31 am | Permalink
  12. Bert wrote:

    I use the mail service a lot. Where I’m located, there is no convenient FedEx office. I also still prefer to mail most of my bills. Without the post office, I would have difficulty dealing with packages. FedEx looks to the bottom line, and will not service all areas equally.

    Saturday, November 13, 2010 at 10:59 am | Permalink
  13. patriotsgt wrote:

    I also use the USPS almost exclusively for packages. I send perhaps 10-15 parcels per week domestically, and several per month to various other countries. I’ve compared prices with all the other carriers and USPS is the most cost efficient.

    My wife does use online bill pay, which is very convienant and easy to use.

    Saturday, November 13, 2010 at 12:43 pm | Permalink
  14. Effisland wrote:

    Stamps still only cost $0.65 here, and that is in Canadian Dollars. Can send as much as ten grams for that (like a few CDs worth), anywhere in Canada. US is about $1.25, almost double.

    Its a great service, yet they make it look like it is ‘losing money’, not considering the service it provides, only the costs to everyone else for ‘subsidizing’ services.

    People end up complaining ‘why am I paying for a service I never use?”

    Along the same lines of thinking as, ‘why bother saving money for retirement, I’m not using it NOW…’

    Not really a sensible comment.

    Saturday, November 13, 2010 at 6:27 pm | Permalink
  15. ebdoug wrote:

    I thought on-line bill pay cost money. I just set it up that the bills are paid directly out of checking the last day they are due. Often they take them out later which is their problem.
    Try living eight miles from the nearest town where you go every two weeks. You will appreciate USPS. Plus I’d have to pay for a mailbox. It might come to that soon.

    Sunday, November 14, 2010 at 4:56 am | Permalink
  16. starluna wrote:

    Effisland – That same line of thought also underlies why some elders here complain about their property taxes going to pay for the school system. There is a “town” that is entirely comprised of an 55+ golf community in Arizona that figured out a way to incorporate themselves so that their property taxes didn’t go towards the area’s school system, but they were still able to be a part of the area’s water and sewer system, police and fire protection, etc. They argued that they didn’t have kids in those schools so why should they pay for them.

    Sunday, November 14, 2010 at 9:52 am | Permalink