Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Illusions of Security

Steve Mirsky, who writes a monthly satirical column for Scientific American, recently wrote an item on airport security and the utter futility of the security mechanisms we all seem to have politely accepted. He agrees with me that these measures may only have an effect in stopping the very dumbest of terrorists. That said, when I wrote about this subject before my views were to do with humor given that I was almost arrested for begging to question said policies.
The interesting thing about Mirsky’s column is that he takes the discussion away from the specific problem of babies being starved to death on long haul flights due to banned formula drinks or people unable to take their aftershave on board with them; he refers to the general “Illusion of Security” the powers that be try to supply us with in order to show that they’re doing something against terrorism (regardless of effectiveness), to cover their ass in case something does happen, and to calm us scared sheep down.
Statistics, let us remember, clearly indicate we stand more of a chance of drowning in our own bath than coming to harm due to flight related terrorism.

I would therefore like to take Mirsky’s line even further and discuss the Illusion of Security at its grandest: virtually all countries spend significant portions of their GDP on security, but is that expense truly needed or is it all just a case of one country after the other taking the other countries down a spirally slippery slope of unnecessary investments?
Take the USA, for example, just because it is easy to pick on for having what is obviously the grandest army on earth. Do they really need their arsenal of some ten thousand nuclear weapons? It’s not like destroying a city has ever been in the direct path of winning a combat, let alone destroying thousands of them. Such weapons, however, do entice those that consider themselves on the target side to develop similar weapons, and the result is that we’re all living under the threat of total annihilation.
Does the USA really need to maintain a fleet of ultra expensive nuclear submarines, each costing more than a billion dollars? Or is it that they’re needed in order to supply Tom Clancy with the subject matter for his next book? Today alone Australian news announced an investment of 25 billion dollars in submarines; just think of all the schools, hospitals and universities this money can bring. Just think of the benefits to come if such money was invested in solar power! Instead, we're letting our money take a dive.
The main reason why I have decided to pick on the USA in particular is an article I have read not that long ago (written by Kenneth Davidson and published in The Age), which claims the USA maintains its military might for purely financial cost/benefit reasons. According to the article, the USA needs its army in order to guarantee its currency is the world’s default currency; that is, to guarantee that all currency exchanges go through the US Dollar first. The advantage there comes because the USA is always able to print more US Dollars, thus making life easier for credit purposes. The suggestion therefore is that this easy credit is worth the USA spending a certain percentage of its GDP to feed its army.
Now, I am way too ignorant when it comes to such matters to offer an opinion on whether this article I have read is worth the paper it was printed on (although in general I have a lot of good things to say about Davidson). What I do know, though, is that the security industry – or the arms industry – represents a significant portion of the USA’s economy. It is perhaps their biggest industry, somewhere high up on the agenda as their entertainment and high-tech industries. The USA is not alone in this position: Russia, the UK, Israel and a great many others rely on their weapons industries to maintain a viable economy.
Take the arms out and the entire economy would collapse, hence the reason why we all have to live in the unsafe world they create. For the sake of an economy we are willing to destroy our security and cover it up with an illusion of security. For the sake of the economy we are willing to kill others.
That has probably always been the case. However, let’s get rid of the illusion and call a spade a spade.


Uri said...

don't you think that if airports had no metal detectors there'd be far more airplane hijacking?

Moshe Reuveni said...

I do think so. There is, however, a significant difference between the metal detectors we all had to go through up until several years ago and the totally different ordeal we're forced to go through now.
Israel seems to have got it right: if you're not highlighted by their profiling system, you can take a barrel of beer with you on the flight and no one would care.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that a simple metal detector stops 99.99% of would be hijackers for a bearable price; all this liquid bullshit they have now (and much more) raises the price by several orders of magnitude in order to acquire a stupidly negligible increase in security. It does, however, project the illusion I was talking about.

If we fail to look at things from a cost/benefit point of view, then we might as well follow on your line of thinking and go even further; for example, why shouldn't we allow people to board plains without any luggage whatsoever and only while they are totally naked? That will surely reduce the number of hijacks!
(At least until the terrorists start specializing in martial arts)