Unsafe Security

A sociologist aptly analyzes our failures in top-down protection.

Against Security: How We Go Wrong at Airports, Subways, and Other Sites of Ambiguous Danger, by Harvey Molotch, Princeton University Press, 278 pages, $35.

Security is both a feeling and a reality, and the two are different things. People can feel secure when they’re actually not, and they can be secure even when they believe otherwise. 

This discord explains much of what passes for our national discourse on security policy. Security measures often are nothing more than security theater, making people feel safer without actually increasing their protection.

A lot of psychological research has tried to make sense out of security, fear, risk, and safety. But however fascinating the academic literature is, it often misses the broader social dynamics. New York University’s Harvey Molotch helpfully brings a sociologist’s perspective to the subject in his new book Against Security

Molotch delves deeply into a few examples and uses them to derive general principles. He starts Against Security with a mundane topic: the security of public restrooms. It’s a setting he knows better than most, having authored Toilet: The Public Restroom and the Politics of Sharing (New York University Press) in 2010. It turns out the toilet is not a bad place to begin a discussion of the sociology of security. 

People fear various things in public restrooms: crime, disease, embarrassment. Different cultures either ignore those fears or address them in culture-specific ways. Many public lavatories, for example, have no-touch flushing mechanisms, no-touch sinks, no-touch towel dispensers, and even no-touch doors, while some Japanese commodes play prerecorded sounds of water running, to better disguise the embarrassing tinkle.

Restrooms have also been places where, historically and in some locations, people could do drugs or engage in gay sex. Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) was arrested in 2007 for soliciting sex in the bathroom at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, suggesting that such behavior is not a thing of the past. To combat these risks, the managers of some bathrooms—men’s rooms in American bus stations, in particular—have taken to removing the doors from the toilet stalls, forcing everyone to defecate in public to ensure that no one does anything untoward (or unsafe) behind closed doors.

Subsequent chapters discuss security in subways, at airports, and on airplanes; at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan; and after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Each of these chapters is an interesting sociological discussion of both the feeling and reality of security, and all of them make for fascinating reading. Molotch has clearly done his homework, conducting interviews on the ground, asking questions designed to elicit surprising information.

Molotch demonstrates how complex and interdependent the factors that comprise security are. Sometimes we implement security measures against one threat, only to magnify another. He points out that more people have died in car crashes since 9/11 because they were afraid to fly—or because they didn’t want to deal with airport security—than died during the terrorist attacks. Or to take a more prosaic example, special “high-entry” subway turn­stiles make it much harder for people to sneak in for a free ride but also make platform evacuations much slower in the case of an emergency. 

The common thread in Against Security is that effective security comes less from the top down and more from the bottom up. Molotch’s subtitle telegraphs this conclusion: “How We Go Wrong at Airports, Subways, and Other Sites of Ambiguous Danger.” It’s the word ambiguous that’s important here. When we don’t know what sort of threats we want to defend against, it makes sense to give the people closest to whatever is happening the authority and the flexibility to do what is necessary. In many of Molotch’s anecdotes and examples, the authority figure—a subway train driver, a policeman—has to break existing rules to provide the security needed in a particular situation. Many security failures are exacerbated by a reflexive adherence to regulations.

Molotch is absolutely right to hone in on this kind of individual initiative and resilience as a critical source of true security. Current U.S. security policy is overly focused on specific threats. We defend individual buildings and monuments. We defend airplanes against certain terrorist tactics: shoe bombs, liquid bombs, underwear bombs. These measures have limited value because the number of potential terrorist tactics and targets is much greater than the ones we have recently observed. Does it really make sense to spend a gazillion dollars just to force terrorists to switch tactics? Or drive to a different target? In the face of modern society’s ambiguous dangers, it is flexibility that makes security effective.

We get much more bang for our security dollar by not trying to guess what terrorists are going to do next. Investigation, intelligence, and emergency response are where we should be spending our money. That doesn’t mean mass surveillance of everyone or the entrapment of incompetent terrorist wannabes; it means tracking down leads—the sort of thing that caught the 2006 U.K. liquid bombers. They chose their tactic specifically to evade established airport security at the time, but they were arrested in their London apartments well before they got to the airport on the strength of other kinds of intelligence.

In his review of Against Security in Times Higher Education, aviation security expert Omar Malik takes issue with the book’s seeming trivialization of the airplane threat and Molotch’s failure to discuss terrorist tactics. “Nor does he touch on the multitude of objects and materials that can be turned into weapons,” Malik laments. But this is precisely the point. Our fears of terrorism are wildly out of proportion to the actual threat, and an analysis of various movie-plot threats does nothing to make us safer.

In addition to urging people to be more reasonable about potential threats, Molotch makes a strong case for optimism and kindness. Treating every air traveler as a potential terrorist and every Hurricane Katrina refugee as a potential looter is dehumanizing. Molotch argues that we do better as a society when we trust and respect people more. Yes, the occasional bad thing will happen, but 1) it happens less often, and is less damaging, than you probably think, and 2) individuals naturally organize to defend each other. This is what happened during the evacuation of the Twin Towers and in the aftermath of Katrina before official security took over. Those in charge often do a worse job than the common people on the ground.

While that message will please skeptics of authority, Molotch sees a role for government as well. In fact, many of his lessons are primarily aimed at government agencies, to help them design and implement more effective security systems. His final chapter is invaluable on that score, discussing how we should focus on nurturing the good in most people—by giving them the ability and freedom to self-organize in the event of a security disaster, for example—rather than focusing solely on the evil of the very few. It is a hopeful yet realistic message for an irrationally anxious time. Whether those government agencies will listen is another question entirely. 

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  • Draft Tulpa 2016||

    He points out that more people have died in car crashes since 9/11 because they were afraid to fly—or because they didn’t want to deal with airport security—than died during the terrorist attacks.

    This is the libertarian equivalent of the Lancet's claim that lack of socialized medicine in the US has killed millions of people... a momentous-sounding and emotionally-appealing factoid that is based on very questionable statistical games.

  • Draft Tulpa 2016||

    1. The extra miles driven by those avoiding air travel are mostly on interstate highways, which are much safer miles than those driven on local streets. By far the most dangerous locations in driving are intersections, which don't exist on interstates.

    2. It's likely that most of the increase in driving is due to the cost difference compared to air travel, especially for families and other groups travelling together, not fear of flying or fear of groping. As well as the convenience of having a vehicle to drive locally when you get to your destination.

  • sarcasmic||

    I'm not afraid of being groped. I'm afraid of going to prison for smashing a federal employee's head for fondling a member of my family. As a result of this I choose to use any transportation other than air travel.

  • Pound. Head. On. Desk.||

    I'm not afraid of being groped.

    Neither am I. But I didn't care for the hostility I got for requesting a woman. I mean, she was right there, and a lot better than Danny Devito's body double, who patted me down instead.

  • croaker||

    These days if you end up in jail for beating a freedom fluffer, the other cons will make your life inside very comfortable.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Reason writers: Bruce has stumbled upon a brilliant way to contain Tulpa. Just throw a correlative statistic into your articles and he will spend the whole comment thread talking to himself, and the rest of can more easily ignore him.

  • Draft Tulpa 2016||

    It was unwise of you to divulge your strategy.

  • ||

    Draft Tulpa 2016 said:

    The extra miles driven by those avoiding air travel are mostly on interstate highways, which are much safer miles than those driven on local streets.

    Miles driven on highways are safer than local streets != miles driven on highways are safer than air travel.

  • Sarah Conner||

    Why do you hate libertarians so much Tulpa?

  • Pagan Priestess||

    It almost makes one wish that there WERE terrorists out and about because those "security" lines at airports would be such a tempting target.

  • ||

    A buddy of mine actually acknowledges that the whole thing is theater, and still says it's necessary because there's a value in "feeling" safe.

  • Rich||

    Point of clarification: Does your buddy feel safe, or is that s/he thinks other people value feeling safe?

  • ||

    No, he's one of those types who believes himself to be enlightened and above such things, but it's necessary for the rabble.

    Which is an attitude I can admit to having myself sometimes, and I deeply suspect most other intelligent people have from time to time.

  • Rich||

    "Well, I suppose it's worth it to keep us safe."


  • Pound. Head. On. Desk.||

    "Well, I suppose it's worth it to keep us safe."

    No matter how many times they used that line, the girls never succeeded in getting me to wear a rubber.

  • Rich||

    we should [give people] the ability and freedom to self-organize in the event of a security disaster

    You mean, like the ability and freedom "given" to subdue the underwear bomber?

  • Pound. Head. On. Desk.||

    Divide flights into two types of passengers: ARMED or DISARMED. Wanna guess which flights the terrorists will avoid?

  • nicole||

    So, I had an "interesting" TSA experience the other day, and I'm wondering if anyone knows what might have happened at one point during it. I was getting the patdown, as per usual, and at the end, when they swab their gloves to test you for "chemicals," I tested positive for the first time. (I still have no idea why.) So this meant I got ushered into a room (where recording, BTW, is not allowed) for a "resolution patdown." That, again, tested positive for "chemicals" so they had to go all nuts and get someone who actually had half a brain to come down and settle everything. The upshot was that the brand new gloves in the box were apparently contaminated. Best part, theater-wise: they never actually patted me down again after figuring that out, so I never actually had a "clear" patdown.

    But anyway, the question is, when I got taken in for the resolution patdown they took my license and boarding pass and I managed to see that the "lady" involved was writing some stuff down, but then it was all out of my site and my travelling companion is also not sure exactly what she did. So what was she doing? Were they running a background check or just adding me to a list or something? Does anyone have any idea?

    Other highlight from the incident: When I was brought into the room one of the agents asked me if I "knew this was going to happen."

  • sarcasmic||

    I just couldn't do it. I have very little respect for authority to begin with, and zero respect for retards in a position of authority.

    I don't think I will ever again step into an airport except to pick someone up.

  • Rich||

    zero respect for retards in a position of authority

    This is my problem as well. It takes an out-of-body experience to endure them.

    @ nicole: I once had a similar experience wrt the "clear" patdown. I had injured my knee and was wearing a metal brace. I alerted security to this fact, and of course set off the detector. I was waved aside, and my knee -- only my knee, mind you -- was wanded. I was then permitted to continue my journey, with whatever other metal objects I had concealed, if any.

  • nicole||

    I have very little respect for authority to begin with, and zero respect for retards in a position of authority.

    Well, I am right there with you, but I am also perfecting the art of looking like a friendly, prim, petite woman being publicly molested by agents of the state.

    It made me feel a lot better to hear afterward that my boyfriend had been very nasty with them. One of the agents "joked" to him that they were "holding [me] hostage" and he said "Yes, I know you are" in his firm-with-dogs voice, and proceeded to make inappropriate angry eye contact with them for the rest of the time, refused to sit down and wait nicely, etc. When I was let out he loudly proclaimed how nice it was to live in a free country. Good times.

  • ΘJΘʃ de águila||

    Evidently, you are on the "List".

  • sarcasmic||

    The more they look like molesters, the better they feel about themselves. It gives them power. They can do what would in any other circumstance be illegal, and you must submit. If you do not then they can force you to miss your flight, or worse have you arrested.

    As far as your boyfriend's nastiness goes, why should it bother them? They have the power and they have no shame. If they had any sense of shame they wouldn't have applied for the job. They don't care.

    So if doing those things makes you feel better, go ahead.

    But know that it has no effect on them.

  • nicole||

    Oh, I'm not trying to have any effect on the TSA agents. Only on the people waiting in line behind me. I figure at least 0.5% of them are not complete sheep.

    What's the alternative, giving up flying? I.e., an important part of my right to travel? When TSA also reserves the right to fuck with you on the train, and ICE in the car? What's the point of that?

  • sarcasmic||

    What's the alternative, giving up flying?

    I did. Then again it's not like I have much of a need. If I had to go on a long trip I'd probably rent a car.

  • nicole||

    Right, and if you did that, and drove within 100 miles of the border, you'd get a similar level of bullshit.

    I travel a lot. I could move, find a different job, or stop seeing my family if I wanted to, but I don't see much benefit in refusing to exercise my rights just because someone wants to make it difficult for me to do so.

  • Geoff Nathan||

    Hear hear. I like traveling, and give talks internationally and vacation around those talks. Damned if I'd give up the chance to see Europe, Asia, or even Vancouver just to avoid the TSA perp walk.
    It IS a trade-off, but you can apply for a Registered Traveler card (or a Nexus card) and then you get to go through a separate line where you can leave your shoes and jacket on and your laptop in your briefcase.
    Of course, you do get your travels recorded in some database, but with 'Secure Flight' you get that anyway, so there's not much to lose. I'd rather have the invasion of privacy involved in filling out (one time only) the forms, than be groped.
    Especially since I was once (for six months) a 'Selectee'. No idea why, but it took formal proceedings to get rid of it. I won't go into gory details, but some of them are here.

  • jasno||

    Geoff, so what you're saying is that you're exactly the type of person who could affect change by not flying, yet you continue to support their system. Thanks for that.

  • Geoff Nathan||

    Whether I fly or not will have zero effect on the TSA--they don't give a shit about me, and being one in about a million with my bizarre belief in personal freedom nobody will even notice. So no, I can't 'effect change'.

  • jasno||

    What? I live within 100 miles of the border and have endured border checkpoints. The checkpoints, as bad as they are, aren't anywhere near as bad as the airport screening process.

    I have yet to hear from friends who have been molested at a checkpoint. Also, racial profiling seems just dandy at checkpoints, so, being white, I rarely have a problem with them.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Other highlight from the incident: When I was brought into the room one of the agents asked me if I "knew this was going to happen."

    Best response: Yes, I've read Orwell.

  • ||


  • ||

    When I was brought into the room one of the agents asked me if I "knew this was going to happen."

    Are you sure this wasn't the intro to a gangbang porn scene?

  • Pro Libertate||

    "Patdown" is deprecated. The TSA now prefers "caress."

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    ...when they swab their gloves to test you for "chemicals," I tested positive for the first time. (I still have no idea why.)

    I think they test for gun powder/explosive residue. Had you been to the range recently?

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    I had the same thing happen to me in Indianapolis a few years ago. They pulled me over to the side, gave me the deep frisk. They asked me if I had been shooting guns recently. Blah.

    God I hate this shit.

  • ||

    I have a rare skin condition that can only be cured with a generous application of black powder over my entire body five times daily.

  • ΘJΘʃ de águila||

    The same residue you get when visiting anti-government websites!?!?

  • nicole||

    That's what I was thinking it might have been. I didn't want to get all sassy and start asking what they actually got a positive for (my boyfriend did ask, when I was in the other room, and all they would tell him was "chemicals"--he's convinced it's from all the agents sticking their nail-polished fingers all over the equipment). But they didn't ask me anything along the lines of like, "It could be this, have you done this at all?" They didn't ask me anything, actually, other than that.

  • Hugh Akston||

    If I were a more cynical guy, I would be tempted to think that the people waving their magic wands don't actually know what chemicals those swabs test for.

    Fortunately I'm secure in the knowledge that our government would never let such a lack of knowledge or training abide.

  • Pro Libertate||

    The rude abides.

  • Loki||

    my boyfriend did ask, when I was in the other room, and all they would tell him was "chemicals"

    They probably don't even know what they're really testing for. They might as well have said "The machine thingy beeped, which means we have to take her aside for a deep massage of her private parts because that's what the procedure says to do. Derp-de-derp de deedly derp de dumb."

  • Loki||

    I've heard that some hand lotions can cause a false positive for explosive residue.

  • jb4479||

    There are so many things that can set off a false positive it isn't funny. I installed those devices in Wyoming's airports, and did the initial maintenance. At the Gillette airport they get false positives all the time, maybe it has something to do with the fact that they are just downwind of the uranium mine? At that time TSA was just setting up so the people actually were competent, with experience in security. And then the bureacrats got a hold of things and well...

  • The Late P Brooks||

    It's likely that most of the increase in driving is due to the cost difference compared to air travel

    Did it hurt when you pulled that out of your ass?

  • SugarFree||

    He's performing a public service. He's saving us from ourselves.

  • Draft Tulpa 2016||

    But when Reason's rent-an-author says the opposite with zero evidence, that's indisputable fact.

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    He also provided no evidence for the date of publication, or his name.

    How dumb are you to think that people here are dumb enough to accept your statements without evidence of your own? Statistics on deaths per miles travelled are quite public and have been for years. Your straw argument that there are no intersections on interstates sidesteps the fact that there are still accidents on interstates, and the extra miles travelled definitely results in additional deaths.

  • Geoff Nathan||

    There's actually a number of publications on this topic, referenced in Schneier's Beyond Fear and elsewhere, and there's plenty of evidence, albeit indirect. It's rather late at night, so I can't find the references right now, but it's not just pulled out of thin air.

  • Loki||

    Whether those government agencies will listen is another question entirely.

    How much they listen is probably inversely proportional to the number of phoney baloney jerbs they'll lose/ how much funding they would lose.

  • ThatSkepticGuy||

    "It turns out the toilet is not a bad place to begin a discussion of the sociology of security. "

    Any discussion that relies on precepts of sociology to examine an issue is already in a bad place.

  • Geoff Nathan||

    But the chapter on toilets is actually extremely interesting. Turns out that, contrary to 'common sense', co-ed bathrooms would be safer for women than unisex ones (at least he makes a pretty good case for that argument). Although he sometimes comes across as a standard lefty sociologist, he actually has a deep faith in spontaneous order, especially in emergencies. It's a really interesting book, and well worth a read. I spend quite a bit of time immersed in security issues because of my job, and I learned a great deal.

    FWIW, Bruce Schneier's books are well worth reading too.

  • Brendan||

    I see the police like to carry fake guns in the airport. It has to be fake, as Obama has repeatedly talked about the semi-automatic firearms that look like that as "weapons that were designed for soldiers in war theaters don't belong on our streets"

    Since this guy isn't a soldier, and the airport isn't a 'war theater', it's just a prop gun right?

  • DHamre||

    Sociologist? Sociologist?!?

    Bruce Schneier is a renowned cryptographer, entrepreneur, security specialist, and writer. He's been a senior executive for British Telecom since BT bought his company Counterpane in 2006.

    Locally (suburban Minneapolis), Schneier is also a fondly remembered restaurant critic and insightful travel adviser.

    I suppose Schneier may also be a brilliant sociologist, but dear editors, I don't know as I'd lead with that fact.

  • Pinhead Zippy||

    Schneier isn't the sociologist. He's the reviewer of the book WRITTEN BY the sociologist. I believe you may not have read beyond the headline, as the subheading gives the name of the book and the name of the sociologist.

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