Terror by the Numbers

Random searches are as much about the appearance of safety as safety itself

Terrorists, however, aren't just trying to kill people. They're trying to scare them. Even if the random searches have a negligible chance of preventing a terrorist attack, they might still help to counter the terrorists' actual mission. As long as most of the public believes—even wrongly—that random searches make them safer, the searches could be a plus.

Schneier calls this "security theater." In the months after 9-11 people were afraid to fly. It was probably an irrational fear, but it was undeniable. So, Schneier says, "National Guard troops in airports with no bullets in their guns was a good idea. The psychological component is very important and shouldn't be minimized."

However, the armed airport patrols after 9-11 also had a political impact. Even if they did reassure some people, the gun-toting men in camouflage also reminded passengers that there was a reason to be afraid in the first place. It's fear that spurred New York's random bag inspections, and fear might mute civil liberties complaints about the checks.

Pen station: Some commuters on 34th Street have to make all stops.
photo: Shiho Fukada
Pen station: Some commuters on 34th Street have to make all stops.

After all, the bag checks were not ordered because of a specific threat, according to Mayor Bloomberg. Instead, the new policy is addressing the general risk posed by the stuff that terrorists might carry onto trains. That risk isn't new, but the worry about it has been stoked by the attacks on the Tube. In fact, New York's random bag checks were only implemented after the second wave of U.K. attacks. It's a little like putting on your seat belt after witnessing not one head-on collision, but two. Your chances of an accident aren't any higher, but your fear of one is. You buckle up.

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