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Not Preventing Terrorism, But Preventing Blame

After boarding a couple dozen flights in the last few months, I am an old hand at the opt-out and full body pat down. One doesn’t have to be a statistician or a mind-reader to figure out why underpaid TSA hands “randomly” pick me for the millimeter-wave scanner. These workers are so used to passengers robotically (and tiredly) doing exactly what TSA tells them to do that it’s an opportunity to remind that there is such a thing as “a right to opt out.” There’s also a certain humor in the government running its latex-gloved finger around my jeans waistband before I board a domestic flight when I’ve paid for and used the United States Global Entry program, “a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) program that allows expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers upon arrival in the United States.” Government waste that’s a-ok with certain parties because it’s done in the name of national defense obviously. We are all safer from my pre-approved, low-risk behind being patted down for everyone to see when fake pilot IDs and uniforms are now enough to bypass airport security.

So, why the security theater?

A new study published by the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes shows that despite the ton of taxpayer dollars spent on decision analysis and modeling the likelihood of terror events, it’s all for naught because the [voting] “public will largely neglect normative likelihood considerations when judging the actions of policy makers.” In other words, because “people have particular difficulty dealing with probabilistic information for small likelihood events, like those for terrorist attacks” and politicians are more interested in the votes of these people than preventing terror, actual threats with higher likelihood of occurrence go ignored.

Schneier himself brings this back to the TSA and their airport practises: “Are they doing their best to mitigate terrorism, or are they doing their best to ensure that if there’s a terrorist attack the public doesn’t blame the TSA for missing it?”

3 comments… add one
  • Blair August 19, 2011, 9:13 PM

    Last paragraph: I vote for avoiding blame.

    • Maitri August 20, 2011, 9:49 AM

      And we all vote for folks who don’t do enough when it comes to keeping government out of our lives where it really counts.

  • just jon September 8, 2011, 10:59 PM

    NPR ran this one this morning.. Reminded me of your “random” searches…

    Of course, I get extra trouble every time in the airport (been through the scanners and then searched, and searched again at the gate once).. One trip I was searched at every hop in both directions.

    Guess I just really am on the list.


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