James Fallows: The Ratchet Effect

December 8, 2010

In response to Bruce’s comments below,  James Fallows described why we are doomed to a future of security theater.

Fallows on Ratchet Effect

What has impressed me over now  the eight and half years since the 9/11 attacks is the political phenomenon of security and safety as a public issue, where there really is this ratchet effect.  And one reason I think that Bruce Schneier has gotten so much attention from other people in the press is that it’s so impossible for people in politics or public life to speak with the lucidity and the tradeoffs he does, saying there are costs we have to pay.
There are certain kinds of risk we can never entirely eliminate unless we are will to close down our lives altogether and that is very difficult for anybody who is ever exposed to running for office to say because then if anything ever goes wrong, as inevitably it will in life they will say “Oh you didn’t protect us.” THat is the political conundrum that worries me most.

The “ratchet” referred to here describes the inability to end a security procedure once it has been used at all.  When the TSA decides everybody has to take off their shoes, it is very hard to say, a year later, “Oh well, never mind. Yes, they were a deadly risk yesterday, but not today.”

He also has a more recent post, reiterating Bruce’s point:

Every society accepts some risks as part of its overall social contract. People die when they drive cars, they die when they drink, they die from crime, they die when planes go down, they die on bikes. The only way to eliminate the risks would be to eliminate the activities — no driving, no drinking, no weapons of any kind, no planes or bikes. While risk/reward tradeoffs vary between, say, Sweden and China, no nation accepts the total social controls that would be necessary to eliminate risk altogether.

Yet when it comes to dealing with terrorism, politicians know that they will not be judged on the basis of an “acceptable level of risk.” They know that they can’t even use that term when discussing the issue. (“Senator Flaccid thinks it’s ‘acceptable’ for terrorists to blow up planes. On Election Day, show him that politicians who give in to terror are ‘unacceptable’ to us.”) And they know for certain that if — when — a plane blows up with Americans aboard, then cable news, their political opponents, Congressional investigators, and everyone else will hunt down any person who ever said that any security measure should be relaxed.

This is the political tragedy of “security theater.” In reality, we do accept a greater-than-zero risk of death from terrorist attack. Otherwise, we’d never fly — or would strip everyone nude before boarding, do cavity searches, and carry no cargo. We accept the bargain for efficiency reasons (I’m not going to get to the airport six hours early to be searched). We accept it on “price of liberty” grounds (I’m not going to strip naked). But politicians can’t come out and say that any risk is acceptable. Nor can they take the risk themselves of saying that security-theater rituals should be dropped, because of the risk of being blamed when the next attack occurs. Thus security-theater is a ratchet. You can add it, but you can’t take it away.

When we can’t talk about what we’re really doing, and when we penalize politicians for speaking the truth, we’re asking for trouble.

We are very far away from Churchill turning to his constituency,  demanding, and receiving, a courageous response to a real security threat, the Blitz.