The blog of the Urban Institute
September 12, 2011

Security Measures after September 11

September 12, 2011

As luck would have it, I flew on September 11. This set me reflecting about the security measures that increasingly surround us since Sept 11, 2001, particularly here in D.C. Do these measures increase our security, our feelings of security, or both? That depends.

First, there are real security measures, some more effective than others. These include the barriers to trucks that now surround federal buildings, metal detectors and x-ray machines even at entrances to museums, ubiquitous security cameras, and patrolling officers. At the airport we also have x-rays, explosive detectors, shoe removal, prohibition of liquids, and, most recently, whole body imagers. When they work, these measures help detect and eliminate threats before they can be carried out. In a democracy, we debate how effective they are and how easy it is for motivated offenders to evade them. We also debate whether their inconvenience and cost are worth the extra security they provide.

But real security measures are not the only ones we encounter. We also encounter faux security measures. Unmanned cameras and perhaps uniformed security personnel with little training don’t help detect and eliminate threats, but might deter would-be offenders who can’t tell real (manned cameras) from faux (cameras casings) measures.

Yet other measures have no preventive potential, but might have forensic utility after a security incident. Showing IDs and signing in to buildings might deter offenders not motivated enough to mask their identities. Many security cameras, likewise, are primarily for forensic potential. Such measures might deter common crime but seem to have little value in deterring terrorists, who generally want their causes to be known and want to be identified. Suicide bombers, of course, will not be deterred by such measures.

And, finally, we have what I think of as fake security measures. The most obvious example is requiring people to show ID before entering a building without recording or comparing those IDs to anything. What possible security value can that serve? They seem to be primarily symbolic, intended to somehow make us feel secure.

Psychologists who study responses to stress distinguish between problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping. Problem-focused coping attempts to address the problem causing the stress. Emotion-focused coping tries to manage emotions, without addressing the problem, through, say, distraction or entertainment. People often turn to emotion-focused coping when  problem-focused coping seems inadequate or ineffective.

Symbolic security measures may make some people feel secure. But they come with real costs. Not only do they use real resources, they may also make us feel more insecure, by indicating that security measures that work are inadequate.

How many of the security measures around us are symbolic rather than real? I suspect there are more than commonly recognized. For example, are automatic weapons of real security value in airports? When they appeared in airports shortly after Sept 11, 2011, some of my acquaintances felt reassured. I doubted whether they had much real security value. Would soldiers use automatic weapons to address known or suspected terrorists in crowded places? Probably not.

In a democracy, symbolic security measures come at the additional cost of obscuring the true state of affairs. Ten years after 9/11, I hope we are confident enough to begin to distinguish real from fake security measures, to eliminate symbolic measures, and to be problem-focused rather than emotion-focused in responding to real threats.


As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.


Security Theater is sadly very popular both with the public and with the Military Industrial complex (and their lobbyists). We've been working on a blog post about how little sense automatic weapons make in a crowded airport. I'm glad someone else is thinking the same way.
Security professionals call symbolic measures "Security Theater." The practice is also resented by theater professionals, who could put on a better show with much smaller budgets.