Does the public understand all this? Of course not. Is it willing to give up a degree—perhaps a great degree—of personal liberty if it’s assured that doing so is the only route to safety? Yes, it is. Yet there are signs that the public is losing faith in such assurances, and in particular that support for the new TSA procedures is less robust than many believe. In a CBS News poll in mid-November, 81 percent of respondents said they were in favor of the full-body scanners. Just one week later, an ABC News–Washington Post poll found that the percentage saying the same thing had slipped seventeen points, to 64 percent. A few days after that, a less precisely worded Zogby poll found that 61 percent opposed the combination of scanners and pat-downs, with 52 percent saying the new procedures would not prevent terrorist activity.
One easy explanation for this slide is that the wave of publicity about the new TSA procedures—the headline-grabbing stories about nuns being groped or a bladder-cancer survivor being soaked in his own urine after an especially idiotic pat-down—has created a momentary bout of hysteria. But a better one is that the ebbing of trust in the TSA is the cumulative result of nearly a decade of steadily building tension and irritation. Of a growing belief that the rules being laid down are capricious, arbitrary, and mostly useless. Of an inchoate but real sense that the system is more about the appearance of safety than actual safety—the very definition of what Schneier is getting at with his term “security theater.”
And, as it happens, that is true. According to most experts in the field, very few of the supposed security enhancements adopted after 9/11 have made airline travel appreciably safer. (The two exceptions that Schneier cites: reinforcing cockpit doors and encouraging passengers to fight back in the case of a hijacking.) Which reforms would actually make transportation safer? Screening checked bags and cargo rigorously, along with the backgrounds of airport employees. Behavioral—not racial or ethnic or religious—profiling. Investing vastly more in intelligence-gathering and investigation, in breaking up terror cells abroad. Doing everything possible, in other words, to stop terror plots and plotters before they reach the airport (or any other target).
The problem with all of these strategies, however, is political. For any elected official, and especially a president, there is a huge incentive to constantly be demonstrating in visible ways that the government is doing everything in its power to combat terrorism. And there is an equally massive disincentive ever to roll back any new form of security, no matter how pointless or cost-ineffective it proves to be—for the moment an act of terror occurs, the one certainty is that the blame game will begin, with a vengeance. In truth, the formulation of security policy is a matter of balancing risks. But given the political environment, no public figure dare speak of it that way. “Politicians can’t come out and say that any risk is acceptable,” writes Fallows. “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.”
In the coming weeks, we will see whether this is true when it comes to the scan-and-frisk regime. In truth, the TSA in the past has quietly rolled back various rules: the prohibition on carrying lighters aboard aircraft was scrapped in 2007, and today the limits on liquids are only enforced sporadically. But never before has the agency or White House behind it faced the kind of public pressure that is in play right now. As Obama and his people consider their alternatives, the political logic of security theater will no doubt weigh heavily on their minds. But they should realize that the audience is getting restless, and that what’s happened in the past few weeks may signal a readiness for a different, and more honest, kind of performance from the stage.