Coming to Grips with Insecurity

Slightly more than eleven years ago – and a bit less than six months after the attacks of September 11, 2001 – I wrote a short piece to no one in particular. I actually addressed it to “Mr. President”, at the time meaning it would have been delivered to George W. Bush. But it was only a title, someone to focus the energy of the letter, and not specifically aimed at him.

The point of the letter was simply to get out the feelings that had been going through my mind for a while. At the time, there was no Facebook, no Twitter. Even blogs were something of a novel invention then. I may or may not actually post the contents of the letter itself. I thought about sending a hard copy it to a representative, but since they usually result in a form letter response, I didn’t (or haven’t).

The main focus was simply to say one thing: In a world such as ours, it is difficult to enforce security. Though Homeland Security and Transportation Security are now a part of our lives, they only serve to enforce a checklist, one that can be looked at in retrospect. Go into any airport or train station – or now other gathering, such as a marathon – and you will find security looking for something that has happened previously.

In order to really enforce a mindset to overcome the actions of terrorists, you need something else. You need proactive security. The approach of the airline El Al is often widely cited as such an example, and I don’t have any experience with them, but I doubt that it would work for many people. Sure, it could be effective, but individuals in the US complain if you take too long to start up again at a green light. They aren’t going to wait for proper screening by trained personnel.

Beyond that, you need to approach the reality that it is next to impossible to really police a determined minority. That is, if there is a single individual, or a few such individuals, who are really intent on their goal, and have no concern for life (theirs or others), it is virtually impossible to stop them at their goal. Though advances in facial and other recognition using technology may help, the sheer amount of data to process makes this impractical. The fact is, we as a people like to socialize. When we gather together, it is easy for a small number to slip through the cracks.

It makes such a place an easy target, and we have to decide if we want to give up those things – easy travel and large events (championships and marathons) – or if we want to cower in our homes, beholden to a few who would inflict terror.

This is not to say that we should allow or encourage such actions by any means. It is just to say that spending billions of dollars may not be the best course to follow. The most successful campaign against terror may well be the iconic words of “Let’s Roll” from Flight 93, or the rush of help during the Boston Marathon bomb, and not the ongoing headache of removing belts and shoes in line at countless checkpoints around the world.

Update: The beginnings of this idea are finally beginning to take hold in Boston, actually – a restaurant down the street from the bombings is saying that they intend to double the number of runners next year (I don’t know if this is even feasible), others are offering free hugs, and still others are simply standing in silent defiance. Sure, there are some who say that their security has been taken away, and they will not run again. But this is exactly what we cannot do.