Against Security: How We Go Wrong at Airports, Subways and Other Sites of Ambiguous Danger

September 20, 2012

Harvey Molotch is a sociologist. His intentions are good: "For each realm taken up in this book, I make suggestions for ways in the here and now to generate collateral benefits - to respond to the fear system in ways that add to rather than subtract from our well-being and that enhance the world, all round".

The realms that he subsumes under security include restrooms, subways, airports, rebuilding Ground Zero, Hurricane Katrina, and an unflattering critique of US performance on the world stage. It is clear that Molotch is a very decent chap. He proposes: "When you don't know what you are doing, the best approach is the more directly humane one."

This he contrasts with the US attitude to the world: we are the biggest and the strongest; nobody can gainsay us. No? Vietnam? Support for many nasty dictators and states and of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence? Weapons of mass destruction? Extraordinary rendition? Not-very-bright presidents delude not-very-bright citizens into believing that the life of the nation is threatened by Bad Guys. The Good Guy declares war. Powerful commerce and overweening egos harness themselves to a massive military and the juggernaut takes on a life of its own. Where shall we invade next? Never mind that a juggernaut is not suited to the surgical removal of terrorists embedded in a largely innocent population. Try stopping it.

The US believes that the Big Guy always wins. Molotch believes that the Nice Guys always win; idealists and their wishful thinking are a menace. He is opposed to command and control in security; Nice Guys do not need big government. He is critical of elites ("they panic"), and of intelligence officials ("if they have any skills at all"), and asserts that "so-called solutions exacerbate problems in the security sphere". He "advocates a program of civilianisation". He comes dangerously close to asserting that security should be entrusted to sociologists. His book suggests otherwise. He reviews rather than analyses security. He includes a whole chapter on the inadequacies of US restrooms (toilets to English speakers), with six pages on female micturition.

I declare my interest: I spent 20 years seeking to improve standards of aviation security. Molotch is correct to observe that there is much wrong with security. The question that he does not address is how it compares to other large undertakings: social services, health services, border controls, traffic management and so on. He does not acknowledge the scale of the undertaking; larger airports process over 60 million passengers per year. He does not note that security employees are among the lowest paid of all airport workers. Nor does he touch on the multitude of objects and materials that can be turned into weapons. Nor does he examine a most important fundamental: any risk-reduction measure brings with it additional risks; it increases the complexity of the system, making it less comprehensible; it invites reliance on the added security measure, weakening vigilance; it prompts those with evil intent to devise new methods of attack. Irony is inherent in risk and in life. It should be central to any serious analysis. We already have multi-agency, multi-organisation, multi-country umbrellas over security. In advocating a multidisciplinary approach, Molotch does not acknowledge that multi-anything is a recipe for sloth and stagnation. I spent many hours in one such international organisation, the virginity of which was so prized by the chairman that he ensured that it produced absolutely nothing. When this perfect civil servant left, the delegate delivering his encomium inadvertently pronounced that his contribution could hardly be underestimated. A joyous day.

Terrorism is extreme violence with an agenda that goes beyond mere criminality. Terrorists have had many tactical successes. They have murdered innocents, hijacked ships, blown up aeroplanes, extorted money and cowed governments. All of which has produced precisely one strategic success in modern history. Thus terrorism is essentially a solipsistic activity; it makes the disaffected feel that they are doing something about their grievances. The only strategic success? Think irony upon irony.

Even if the US abandons its bully-boy behaviour, even if peace is achieved in Israel and Palestine, disaffection will not be eliminated from human nature. Terrorism is the weapon of the disaffected; it has been invented; it cannot be disinvented. Public pressure and the politicians' need to be seen to "do something" will bring more security counter-measures. Molotch is right to say that their conduct must be improved.

Against Security: How We Go Wrong at Airports, Subways and Other Sites of Ambiguous Danger

By Harvey Molotch. Princeton University Press 8pp, £24.95. ISBN 9780691155814 and 9781400844869 (e-book). Published 17 September 2012

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