In Praise of Security Theater

Most security measures taken in Lebanese public places don’t actually work, but they’re important nonetheless.

Spinneys Tripoli stopped allowing cars from parking right in front of it in the wake of the two explosions

A fearless Lebanese journalist finally conducted an experiment I’ve been long speculating about: What if someone tried to drive a car that is full of explosives past security measures the government and large companies are implementing? Those antenna things were long discredited, and surely those little changes here and there can’t change much in the lethality of a potential attack by terrorists bent on causing mayhem. Sure enough, Radwan Mortada’s report was damning: Many of the measures taken don’t work in the least in detecting explosives, and the security experts who implemented them probably know that. Why are they still around? Why is this scam lasting so long?

Security Theater

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, Security expert Bruce Schneier’s has coined the term security theater to describe measures that are taken by authorities to give the people a false sense of security. Some measures (like increasing clear buffer areas in Spinneys) actually work, but most of what is being done today by  malls and government agencies in Lebanon is security theatre. But is that really a bad thing? Our immediate reaction once we learn about the ineffectiveness of security measures is to cry foul and play the blaming game. But if we set our emotions aside and consider the facts, we will understand why the perception of security is almost as important as security itself.

First, two central and important facts:

  • Despite how scary they are and how much people are talking about them, the odds of you dying of terrorist attacks are very, very low. You are much more likely to be killed in a car accident than in an explosion at your local mall.
  • There is no security system that is air-tight. There are no measures that can 100% stop a determined man from killing a large amount of people

Once you really understand the facts above, and understand populations’ tendency for unconstructive panic, you’ll understand why security theater is important for people to be able to live normal lives. People who believe that security is being taken care of –even if it’s an illusion– will behave more rationally and more in line with their actual odds of being hurt by terrorist attacks. Even Scheiner himself, the man who invented the term “security theater”, came around to seeing its value: “delivering the perception of improved security may be a practical job requirement [for security professionals]” he admitted.

Wherever you look in Lebanon, you see security theater. Sometimes you don’t even recognize that it’s security theatre. The day after the explosions in Tripoli, many army tanks roamed the streets of the capital of the north and made a thundering background noise heard all across the place. The tanks were not meant to increase security (how can rolling tanks discover booby-trapped cars?), but they  achieved their objective perfectly: They soothed the frayed nerves of scared and wary citizens.

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  • Hadi El-Khoury

    I have mixed feelings about your post as it contains both correct and false perceptions! It’s all about Risk Management! What bothers me the most is the impact that it would have on your readers who won’t question security presence or absence anymore. You brought an excellent quotation from Bruce Schneier on “Security theaters” but bare in mind that his analysis concerned the US! We can’t compare the US to Lebanon. When you take the ratio “security related incidents/bombings/assassinations/terrorist attacks” and you bring it to the Lebanese population, it’s WAY above “acceptable” levels that some Western capitals have endorsed and learned to live with. We need to “Take Security Back” step by step without falling into “Security through Obscurity” or “Security through Theater perception”. We need to ask for accountability as these “false detectors” and other security mechanisms have direct and indirect costs and we’re entitled to ask for a proven ROI. Besides, Risk Management strategies apply to other disciplines of Security, whether it pertains with premises or technology. The same Risk Appetite governs all and, in Lebanon in particular, this erroneously inflated Risk Appetite needs urgently to be decreased!

  • j

    While saying Mourtada is “A fearless Lebanese journalist” is not far off it also has a positive connotation. I think that was a moronic move. Why not simply find a way to test the bomb detectors or put some sort of legal metals that would attract the same response? For his own sake, what if he was caught? He says, don’t worry guys, I’m a journalist?! Or what if he badly crashed his car and it caught fire. I think this “journalism” was incredibly irresponsible!

  • Faris Karim

    Residents of the southern suburbs have mixed feelings regarding the new security situation they have found themselves stuck in. In general, though, they are inclined to show “feelings of defiance” and accept the security lockdown measures imposed by Hezbollah as an inevitable means of protecting their families from being killed by indiscriminate bombings.

    However, with each new day under lockdown, the suburbs’ residents feel that their lives have clearly been disrupted and that they are turning into besieged citizens of the ghetto, even if they themselves are making the decision. This could be another valid reason for emigration and start thinking seriously about finding a better life and security elsewhere!