Airport Security Theatre

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POSTED: August 25, 2006

I have just read an interesting piece by Bruce Schneier in Wired online in which he talks about the ways in which governments and the media are doing terrorists’ jobs for them. His basic point is that the aim of terrorism is to spread terror, and the only way to combat it is to prevent people feeling afraid.

He also makes the point that the recent arrests of 25 people in England for allegedly plotting to smuggle liquids onto aircraft and then mix them into bombs in the toilet are, to put it mildly, far fetched. None of the 25 had purchased any plane tickets, according to but they “were in the process of perusing the Internet to find flights to various cities that had similar departure times”. Some of them didn’t even have passports, so they were presumably looking for local flights.

The Register has an article by Thomas C Greene arguing strongly that the alleged plot simply could not have worked for technical reasons. Mixing safe substances together in an airplane toilet to make a lethal bomb is something only Bruce Willis or Tom Cruise can do, and then only if the movie is fast-paced enough that you don’t stop to ask questions.

Greene says that we are “told that the suspects were planning to use TATP, or triacetone triperoxide, a high explosive that supposedly can be made from common household chemicals unlikely to be caught by airport screeners. A little hair dye, drain cleaner, and paint thinner – all easily concealed in drinks bottles – and the forces of evil have effectively smuggled a deadly bomb onboard your plane.

Or at least that’s what we’re hearing, and loudly, through the mainstream media and its legions of so-called “terrorism experts.” But what do these experts know about chemistry? Less than they know about lobbying for Homeland Security pork, which is what most of them do for a living. But they’ve seen the same movies that you and I have seen, and so the myth of binary liquid explosives dies hard.”

He then goes on to explain how the process would work in real life. It would be difficult, dangerous, smelly and take several hours in the toilet with an ice bucket. And that’s assuming you had a passport and a plane ticket.

As Bruce Schneier says, much of what is going on is not security, it is theatre; and the problem with that is that the theatre is making us frightened which is the terrorists’ intention in the first place.