Layers of Security 4: Fighting Terror by Refusing to Be Terrorized

In the final part of the interview, Bruce Schneier gets to some conclusions on whether the cost of current security policies is worth the benefit, speaks on the war metaphor effect, and where the sensible line should be drawn in fighting terrorism.

– Now, Bruce, you’ve just pointed something out and I was going to go back to that, which is, politically this is a good thing to do, generally it’s good for governments: if they want votes, do this, say we are going to beef up security. So not only are you struggling to convince governments to stop doing this on airlines, but ordinary Americans don’t seem to want their reduced security either?

95-year-old veteran underwent TSA abuse with enhanced screening

95-year-old veteran underwent TSA abuse with enhanced screening

– Well, a lot do. It’s really changed in the past decade. After September 11th people were scared and willing to do anything. We’re seeing more people say: “No, we don’t need this”. I’m seeing more newspaper editorials, I’m seeing more commentators, and we’re seeing a lot of TSA abuses with these enhanced screenings. In the newspaper in the past couple of weeks or so, there was a story about a four-year-old being screened and she was hysterical, because basically a strange man was touching her, this is very much like child abuse. We’re seeing grandmothers, there was a war veteran who had $300 in cash stolen from him by the TSA, he was forced to put it in a bin, and when he went back to it, it wasn’t there. We’re seeing a lot more people saying this is too much. “The Economist” magazine had a debate online which basically said: “Is airport security worth it?” I wouldn’t imagine that happening even 5 years ago. We’re seeing a backlash.

– I know lots of people, and I’m probably one of them, who think: “Why did we have to go through that?” But then I was thinking about this, and I thought, well, when Obama tried to bring in, partially successfully, the health care plan, there was tremendous opposition to that in the United States, and a lot of it was built around “We don’t want to lose freedom, we want to choose for ourselves”. And I’m wondering, why is it that people don’t rise up in the same way about airlines, which is something that maybe happens to them much more often in the airline security?

– Maybe that whole choose-freedom thing was back then kind of bogus, that was other Republicans not wanting to do anything that Obama liked. Obama’s health care program was a Republican plan that the Republicans turned against. Be careful with the United States’ rhetoric, it’s a pretty dysfunctional political system right now.

– I’m just wondering why something which a lot more people probably experience tension with doesn’t strike the same chord.

– Well, a lot of people don’t fly, first of all, so might not realize it. And I think in many cases it does, that the revolt against the full body scanners was pretty impressive, and there are a lot of people who said NO. In the end, people want to fly. The problem with protesting is the people who are doing this to you are the wrong people to protest. When you’re going to the airports in the United States you’re very much in a constitution-free zone. You know that the people there can do whatever they want, you have no say, you’re afraid if you complain you’ll get put on a list, they’ll call the police, they’ll ruin your day, and you’re just trying to get home to see your parents.

– And you can’t make any jokes.

– You can’t make any jokes, right.

Gun design on clothes makes you a suspect

Gun design on clothes makes you a suspect

– That’s how one friend of mine got in trouble.

– Ha-ha! I don’t think I want to know the story, there’re some pretty bad stories, but yes, it’s a joke-free zone. And people have been denied boarding because they had a picture of a gun on their T-shirt. There was someone who had a plastic lightsaber confiscated – not only is it a plastic weapon, it’s a fake weapon; stuff that makes no sense.

– Was it sharp in any way?

– No, it was a flashlight with a plastic tube at the end, but it was confiscated, because in some movie universe it’s dangerous if you’re a Jedi.

– I hope it was a kid.

– It was a kid, which makes it even worse! The abuses are almost silly when you run through them. We have problems that the former head of the Homeland Security Department lobbies for one of the full body scanner machine companies. And there’s all sorts of things going on.

– Is there a culture of giving up your freedom though when you fly, maybe because people think now the war zone with terrorism is the airplane, for whatever reason? And in war time people will give up all sorts of things. Do you think that people subconsciously think there is a war going on, this war on terror, and, well, I don’t like this, but there’s this whole ‘mustn’t grumble’ thing…

– Certainly that was true in the Bush years, I mean Bush very much pushed the war metaphor, that we’re at war with terrorism. And of course you’re right: when you are at war, the normal rules of liberty and freedom, and privacy, and civil rights don’t apply; everything goes out the window, it’s a different game. Obama has not done that as much. I still think there’s some of that. But more people are returning to normal, so we’re seeing more arguments about whether it’s worth it. The real debate should be: are these measures worth it? I mean, yes, they might make you safer, but, you know, so will locking yourself in your house and never leaving. The question is: is it worth it? Is the increased safety worth the cost? Life itself is risk, and that’s not bad, absolute safety is impossible, and that’s okay.

The question is: what should we do, and what’s too much to do?

– Are you interested simply in what’s happening in the air space of the United States, or security right across American lives?

– I look at security everywhere, a lot of what I work on is Internet security, and Internet banking, and our privacy and medical security – everything going on there. I’m here, in New Zealand, for an identity conference, which is going to look at identity and privacy, and security. I look at voting machines and ID cards, I know there’s a debate in New Zealand right now about ID cards. I really look at the whole gambit of security, and how people and technology interact.

– What’s the response that you’ve had, then, to terrorists, especially since September 11th? How do you cope with any sense of danger? How do you think most people should cope if we’re not going to spend all this money on things? Now, you did point out that every time we’ve come across something, then the terrorists go to next thing, but nevertheless when security’s found a gap – they’ve plugged it. Once you know something’s there, you have a moral responsibility, one argument is to do something about it. What’s the alternative approach?

– Actually, you kind of don’t. I mean, I can let you know right now that you’re not wearing a bullet-proof vest, and someone with a gun can shoot you. There has probably been a murder in New Zealand sometime in the last few months, so we know it’s true. Does that mean everyone should go buy bullet-proof vests? It doesn’t. You don’t have to plug every hole, the question is: is it worth it? Is the cost worth the benefit?

– Do you fight terror by refusing to be terrorized?

People get paranoid about most ridiculous suspicion

People get paranoid about most ridiculous suspicion

– That’s my phrase, I think we fight terror by being indomitable. I mean, terrorism, if you think about it, is not a crime against airplanes, or property, or even human lives; terrorism is a crime against the mind. Terrorism’s goal is to cause terror, it does that through wanting destruction of life and property. But it does that to achieve a goal, which is to terrify people. If we refuse to be terrorized, then the terrorists can’t win regardless of what they do. If we are terrorized, even if there’s nothing, the terrorists win even if they don’t do anything. Do you remember the BOB scare? It happened in Australia, I can’t remember the year. But there was an airplane, and someone found on one of those plastic air sickness bags the letters “BOB”, and for some reason the flight attendant decided that this meant “Bomb On Board”, and then the plane made an emergency landing. The terrorist didn’t even have to be there, and he caused terror. That’s us being crazy.

– I think, I strongly relate to what you’re saying, but there’s one nagging doubt, and that is, I have not lost anyone, friend or family, anyone close to me in a terror attack. Could you say the same thing if you had? Have you lost friends?

– I have not, but remember, there’s a long tradition in our society that victims and victims’ families are not in charge of punishment. You can say this about criminal justice, there’s a murderer on trial, and has the judge lost anyone to murder? Why isn’t the victim’s family up there judging the murderer? That’s not the way our society works. If you lost someone, you lost a loved one, you have a much more emotional reaction to this. But what we want is not an emotional reaction, we want a calm, logical, sensible reaction. Is it worth it? And of course, if you’re a victim, you’re going to have a different perception of that.

But the right one is the one that’s more detached.

– Will there be more terror attacks on your country?

– Yes, of course. Terrorism will never go away, the history of terrorism stretches back to Ancient Egypt. As long as there are people there will be crime, there will be accidents, there will be terrorism, there will be psychopaths – these are natural human things. The question is: will they be an existential threat? Will they destroy our way of life? And the answer to all of those is – of course not. And the goal of security is to keep the rate of all these things to some acceptable minimum. The murder rate in the United States isn’t zero, it’s not zero in New Zealand; we have 42,000 people die each year in our country in automobile crashes – an enormous number! And society has some natural risk tolerance: you know, the murder rate gets too high, we all start saying: “Hey, we need more police”. If the murder rate gets too low, people start saying, “Why are we spending so much money on police, when we have other problems that need solving?” We as society have a natural barometer, and we pick the level. And these things will always exist, humans are never perfect, never always law-abiding, but that’s okay.

– It does seem though the barometer in some cases, and terrorism is one of them, has kind of got out of whack.

– That’s because we’re scared. When people are scared, they’ll do anything not to be scared anymore. And unfortunately, national policy built around fear tends to make less sense. It’s only with the distance that history brings that you can really look at what happened and decide what is a reasonably measured reaction.

– Bruce, thanks very much for joining us!

– Thank you!

Read previous: Layers of Security 3: Are We on the Right Track?

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