Progressive Principle One: An End to Security Theater

One reason I'm interested in the 1960s and the New Left is because this time period has crafted the terms of debate that we use today.  As a new progressive movement, we must both acknowledge and build upon those terms, while introducing our own.  I'm going to run down a few concepts that describe what this new progressive movement is about.  These concepts are cross-cutting.

One of the most important is something called 'Security Theater', a term coined by cryptographer Bruce Schneier.  This concept is what restricting liquids on airplanes, the war in Iraq, the war on drugs, large concrete barricades around Washington, DC, and in some ways restrictions on violent video games have in common.

Security theater has been defined as ostensible security measures which have little real influence on security whilst being publicly visible and designed to show that action is taking place. Security theater has been related to and has some similarities with superstition.


Security theater has a real monetary cost but does not provide tangible benefits. Most security theater involves restricting people's behaviour in very visible ways that likely involve intrusions into liberty and privacy.

Security theater is at heart state-sponsored tyranny.  For instance, not having liquids on planes doesn't appreciably change the risk of terrorist attacks, but it prevents you from having liquids on planes.  Making grass illegal doesn't reduce drug dependency, but it does increase the ability of the government to imprison substantial parts of the population using arbitrary methods.  There is a direct trade-off between security theater and freedom, but our risk is not reduced through security theater.  The war in Iraq has reduced our freedom of action dramatically, and it did for a time make us feel safer.  But it is costly and has increased risk for all of us in many ways.

As progressives, we aren't against security measures or authority, but we are offended by Security Theater.  We are reality-based in orientation and find, say, stupid stories on cyber-terrorism insulting.  We believe that individuals have a role to play in statecraft, and find the lies necessary to sustain the perception of risk in Security Theater insulting and destructive.

The right-wing is entirely about Security Theater and nothing more.  Bush and his ilk really don't try to reduce actual risk for Americans.  What conservative reactionaries try to do is increase the perception of action while increasing the perception of risk.  They tend to lie about the dangers so they can look more heroic and perpetuated what really is a set of superstitions about security.   It's the perfect marriage of religious right absolutism, corporate incompetence, and mass media - PR as security and state-sponsored restrictions.

Undoing the Security Theater state is going to be a major task for progressives over the next thirty years.  Security Theater is everywhere, not just in our airports.  Take the war on drugs.  Bill Clinton and George Bush both used drugs but wouldn't admit it.  Barack Obama admitted cocaine use and no one cares (or should care).  Yet the war on drugs continues to imprison and punish millions even as our elites admit openly to flouting the law.  Let me just repeat that - the last two Presidents were drug-users and paid no price for it, yet drugs are still illegal.  The war on drugs doesn't perceptibly reduce drug dependency, make us a safer society or improve freedom for citizens, it often does the opposite.  But it made a lot of people feel good.  That's wrong.  

Democrats get this intuitively, even if they are clumsy about it. I'm drawn to the REAL Security Act that the Democrats ran on in 2006.  The name says it all - 'we're real, they are theater'.  Similarly, the war in Iraq has increased the threat of terrorism, but it made us feel good for a time.  What would reduce the threat of terrorism is to stop killing kids in the Middle East and changing our energy usage patterns.  These are both positions that Democrats are much closer to embracing than Republicans.

Anyway, Security Theater, I think it's an important concept for progressives. The idea that there's a trade-off between civil liberties and security is stupid, but there is a trade-off between civil liberties and security theater.

Anyway, I just thought I'd throw this term out as a bedrock principle for a new progressive movement that values liberty and community - we value freedom over PR.

Tags: 1960s, netroots, New Left, progressive movement (all tags)



Re: Progressive Principle One

Good post, Matt, and good framing.

In NYC we've had random subway searches for the last week or so.  The polling was quite clear - people opposed the concept, but not because of abstract "civil liberties" concerns or anything like that.  It's quite obvious that people would go along with intrusive security measures provided they actually accomplished something.

No, people opposed the searches because they were, and are, flat-out stupid.  The vast majority of subway stations have no searches.  If you're a terrorist with a bomb, and you walk down the steps to the subway only to see a table of policemen searching people before they get on the subway, all you'd do is walk a couple blocks to the next station where there's no search.  There's no chance of catching an actual evildoer, and there's no chance of a deterrent effect since it's trivially easy to avoid a search if you don't want one.

All this accomplishes is making the government look busy, look like it's trying to stop terrorism.  Maybe some tourists who don't realize how easy it would be to avoid a search feel comforted by it, that's about the only benefit I can think of.

The whole thing is absolutely classic Security Theater.

by Steve M 2007-01-03 07:15AM | 0 recs
Tester ...

Wasn't that Tester's unstated point in his debate with Burns?  The Patriot Act doesn't really do anything to make us safer.  It's all just fear mongering.

by Calvin Jones and the 13th Apostle 2007-01-03 07:24AM | 0 recs
Re: Tester ...

Yeah, that sounds right.

by Matt Stoller 2007-01-03 07:48AM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Principle One

Amen Brother!!  This fits with what I keep telling people.  It is not possible to kill all of the terrorists in the world.  If it was a possibility and we had to relinquish our civil liberties to do it, we would come out the loser.  The terrorists would all be martyrs and Jeffersonian government would disappear from the planet in the process.  In other words, if 9/11 changes everything then the terrorists have already won.

Jeffersonian government is the best government devised by mankind because it is based on doctrine which says "The government may not, the government may not, the government may not"  over and over again while most of the forms of government that preceded it where based on doctrine which said "the citzens must or must not" over and over again.  Security theatre, like the GOP, is stuck in a pre-1776 mindset.

by lockewasright 2007-01-03 07:52AM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Principle One: An End to Security

Since when do American's give up their First & Fourth Amendment Rights to free speech and unreasonable searches by flying within the continental US. This theater of security is so laughable...

Who has made sure that the Airport employees have had background checks?
Does anyone screen the cargo?
Is there any security for the food service providers to the airplanes?

TSA agents know that what they are doing is NOT doing anything to make travelers safer. The most offending thing about flying today is having TSA agents SCREAMING at me(take your shoes off, put your computer & other video equipt). When is it ok to scream instructions to Americans, some who fly weekly.

I have tried to explain who unsafe it is for flyer's to take their shoes off and walk through the security checkpoints either in sox or barefoot. Just that process is a bio hazard, what if someone was spreading bio agent and thousands of travelers could pick it up and spread it across the globe.

I have a question.... Why hasn't the terrorist level been increased with 4 British Airlines tested positive for Radiological material?

by katymine 2007-01-03 08:08AM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Principle One: An End to Security


I flew on New Year's Eve, and my 6-year-old daughter got pulled aside by the security guy because she had a snow globe in her bag full of toys.

The guard knew it was BS.  We knew it was BS.  My daughter was just happy to have another adult to explain her ongoing soap opera among her action figures to.

by Nina Katarina 2007-01-03 10:48AM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Principle One

On further thought, this also fits well with one of my favorite stratgeic ideas.  The GOP has become the party of intrusive government.  This gives the democratic party a chance to take a lasting majority by appealling to libertarians who are frustrated with the GOP for it's intrusiveness.  Once the reality theatre concept gains some traction and people are thinking about what a bad thing intrusive government is, there is a natural next step...

Some recent conversations have centered around what democrats should do to pick up some of the religious vote.  I think that instead we should concentrate on letting the GOP's religious pandering be the reason that they lose repeatedly.  Pidgeon whole them in it.  Religious pandering neccessarily means intrusive government.  Schiavo, gay marriage, abortion, and several others are perfect examples of how religious pandering leads to intrusive government.  "GOP says you may not"  Dems say "You can decide for yourself what is right."

Once people start thinking about the loss of liberty from security thaeatre, they will be ready to hear about loss of liberty do to failure to maintain a separation of church and state.  What's more, once the GOP loses specifically because of religious pandering they will stop it.  Then we can all go back to obeying The Constitution and protecting freedom of conscience for all through separation of church and state.

by lockewasright 2007-01-03 08:15AM | 0 recs
Scientific research

Great post.  

We need to subject homeland security policies to the same scrutiny that we do to other government programs to separate the effective measures from security theater as you call it.

We have been putting every job training program and every welfare to work program through rigorous trials, often with randomized experiments, to determine whether they achieve their objectives.  Why can't we do the same to security measures?  

But, you say, there have been no attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11?  We can't afford to expose anyone to attack?

Granted, the methodological problems are harder because we're trying to prevent a rare event (deaths from attacks) instead of promote a common one (employment).  

But we're pretty smart. We should be able to apply benefit-cost principles and sophisticated research resources toward determining whether any of this stuff reduces the frequency and severity of attacks.  Until then, we're wasting money and spreading fear, essentially doing the terrorists' work for them.

by freedc 2007-01-03 08:20AM | 0 recs
Drug Legalization

Drug legalization should be (though I am sure it will not be) a major part of building a progressive America.  As a citizen of Baltimore, I see first hand every day the effects of this disastrous, draconian policy.  Our cities are dying, and the disease is the illegal drug trade.  Of the 270 or so murders in Baltimore City this year, nearly 80% of the victims and suspects were involved in the drug trade.  

I know this is a hush-hush issue, one that doesn't win elections and could indeed lose them.  However, it is morally reprehensible to allow this illegal drug trade to continue to claim our young men and women.  Drugs must me made legal and become integrated into our legal economy.  Along with this, fighting urban poverty and improving urban schools must follow.  Whole generations are being lost in our cities.  Ending the war in Iraq is a priority, but ending our own 30 year war at home should be close behind.

by andy k 2007-01-03 08:59AM | 0 recs
or as we like to call it

"kabuki." a little too esoteric for a meme/framing, but a personal favorite to describe so much of what our government "does."

from a section of the wiki entry on "kabuki:"

The raucous and often violent atmosphere of kabuki performances attracted the attention of the ruling Tokugawa shogunate, and in 1629 women were banned from the stage for the stated purpose of protecting public morals. Some historians suggest that the government was also concerned by the popularity of kabuki plays that dramatized ordinary life (rather than the heroic past) and enacted recent scandals, some involving government officials.[citation needed]

A tryst between a man and a youth, probably a kabuki actor.[image]

Young kabuki actors were often sought-after by townsmen who followed shudo.
Since kabuki was already so popular, young male actors took over after women were banned from performing. Along with the change in the performers' gender came a change in the emphasis of the performance: increased stress was placed on drama rather than dance. Their performances were equally ribald, however, and they too were available for prostitution (also for male customers). Audiences frequently became rowdy, and brawls occasionally broke out, sometimes over the favors of a particularly handsome young actor, leading the shogunate to ban young male actors in 1652.[1]

as i said, it's too esoteric to catch on, but all the qualities are there. youth/man love, prostitution, ribal behavior, scandal, and the emphasis on drama. that's what we get in the halls of power, not "governance" or "legislating."

by chicago dyke 2007-01-03 09:10AM | 0 recs
Re: or as we like to call it


by Matt Stoller 2007-01-03 09:15AM | 0 recs
Re: An End to Security Theater

I'd love for any significant group to take up the cause of ending Security Theater (at least as Bruce defines it; I'm not as certain of your attempted re-definition above) however, I've seen very few proposals to that effect. John Kerry made a few such proposals early in his presidential bid, but later dis-avowed them when they played poorly in the press. Most of the Democratic proposals (and some of the 9/11 commission proposals) appear to be different kinds of Security Theater ("Let's scan all containers entering this country"), not an elimination of Security Theater. The "Real Security Act of 2006" did not appear to be an exception - it presumes particular tactics and methods ("a Movie-Plot Threat") that the terrorists "will use", ignore the fact that implementing them just makes the terrorists more likely to use other tactics and methods.

see 06/04/announcing_movi.html
for a list of dozens of Movie-Plot Threats. A later post on that blog identifies the winners.

by Zimbel 2007-01-03 09:55AM | 0 recs
Re: An End to Security Theater

Democrats are clumsy about security, but they are moving in the right direction with talk about energy pattern changes in our economy.

by Matt Stoller 2007-01-03 10:03AM | 0 recs
Re: An End to Security Theater

The problem is that many people are making lots of money on security theater, and no one gets rich by ending it. That's the perfect definition of an uphill struggle in our current democracy.

I'm not sure what group could have a strong enough interest in ending Security Theater to take the lead on it. It's a low-level irritant for all of us, but it's not a strong enough detriment to anyone to move them to action. otoh, the growing Security/Industrial Complex loves them some governmental largess.

As you say, much of the Democratic proposals involve nothing more than money going to different places. The money is almost assuredly better spent than with the GOP's ridiculousness, but it won't lessen the security profile all that much.

by BriVT 2007-01-03 11:51AM | 0 recs
Re: An End to Security Theater

The problem is that many people are making lots of money on security theater, and no one gets rich by ending it. That's the perfect definition of an uphill struggle in our current democracy.

The future is always disorganized, the past always well-defended.

by Matt Stoller 2007-01-03 01:08PM | 0 recs
Re: An End to Security Theater

But the future needs a catalyzing force to become realized. I'm not sure if the low-level annoyance of Security Theater can ever reach that point. I hope so, but it's our job as activists to tie it together into a coherent narrative that people can rally against, I guess.

Personally, I think the current defense contractor abuse and corruption presents a once-a-generation opportunity to begin the pushback on the whole edifice ...

by BriVT 2007-01-03 03:13PM | 0 recs

The right-wing is entirely about Security Theater and nothing more.

And I think their obsession with theater doesn't stop with security; it is much more than that.  It seems to me that many of the folks on the right (not necessarily the campaign managers, but the rank and file) believe that all you need to run a campaign is a nice smile and a charming personality.

In any case, it seems to me that what you're suggesting is that we attempt to frame security policy as a debate between our approach: "reality based security policy" and theirs: "security theater".

To do a bit of an aside, this approach fits into a larger context.  There's an interesting debate going on at Street Prophets these days about what the mantra of the religious left should be - what its political and theological message should be.  I haven't written it up yet, but I plan to soon write a post about a theological message of honesty and inquiry.  In this context, reality-based security fits perfectly.

However, I think the phrase "reality-based security" is a bit too easy and meaningless as well.  What it says is that we support a particular process for arriving at security policy: study the threats to security, investigate options for mitigating those threats, evaluate downsides to those options, come to a decision, etc.  Actually it's quite a boring process, as it entails essentially common sense and just a bit more work than what basic competence requires.

What it doesn't say is what kind of options we tend to favor.  In foreign policy, do we favor diplomacy, preventative and strategically targeted foreign aid, economic sanctions, limited warfare, all-out guns-blazing warfare, or what?  I think it's clear that most progressives favor some mix of the first three options in foreign policy, and a very limited stew of the last few.  But that's not a purely reality-based policy, since it tips the scale a bit.  Progressives favor assessing security threats and weighing potential options baaed on their potential disadvantages; but they also are predisposed to favor certain options over others.

In short, I think Security Theater is a great way to describe right wing approaches to security, but its implied opposite ("reality based security policy") is not a great way to describe progressive approaches to security.  We need a little something extra.

by Shai Sachs 2007-01-03 10:02AM | 0 recs
Re: theater

But that's not a purely reality-based policy, since it tips the scale a bit.  

How so?  I'm not sure that attempted avoidance of mass warfare is tipping the scale away from reality-based security.  

by Matt Stoller 2007-01-03 10:05AM | 0 recs
Re: theater

well, a purely reality-based policy could (theoretically) come out on the side of mass warfare, if that was indeed the best option, after considering all the risks and potential benefits.  say, in the case of WW2 or something like that.

i think it is true that most progressives would support mass warfare if there was a really strong and compelling case for it, and it was obvious that mass warfare was unavoidable.  in that sense progressive approaches to security policy probably is, indeed, the closest thing to reality-based security as we're going to get.

the trouble, i suppose, is that it's just not that sexy to sell reality-based policy, since at the end of the day you're selling a process.  it's essentially a rehash of technocratic liberalism.  the reality-based policy process is laden with some values (respect for honesty and inquiry, for example), but it is rather bland compared to the full set of values progressives actually bring to a foreign policy discussion.

most progressives tend to bias discussions of foreign policy towards preventative foreign aid, diplomacy, and limited economic sanctions, and that has values attached to it as well (respect for life, etc.)  same goes for other security related issues, like chemical plant safety or por security.  to describe our approach to security as merely reality based security is to leave out those important values.

by Shai Sachs 2007-01-03 11:20AM | 0 recs
Re: theater

well, a purely reality-based policy could (theoretically) come out on the side of mass warfare, if that was indeed the best option, after considering all the risks and potential benefits.  say, in the case of WW2 or something like that.

But this is what the progressive movement is all about.  SANITY!  It may not be 'sexy', but it is the definition of what progressive people want.

You say we have to define ourselves.  Sometimes, politically speaking, the best way to define yourself is by what you are not.
As an example of this let's take Conservatives.  They are much more likely to insult liberals as being atheists who hate Christians and therefore Conservatives are not.

Progressives could easily sell themselves as not being a 'drunk in the bar waiving a broken bottle at whoever comes close'.

by maddogg 2007-01-03 12:59PM | 0 recs
Re: theater

the problem with this approach is that it's not hard to dress up crazy and stupid policy as levelheaded technocratic policy wonkery.  see powell, colin; appearance before the un.

in short, you can run on technocratic liberalism, aka "reality-based policy", but it's very easy for your opponent to dress in the same clothes and outplay you at your own game.

ultra-conservatives only look jacked-out crazy to liberals like us.  the rest of the nation doesn't catch on for, it appears, 5 - 6 years, and there's an awful lot of damage that can be done in that kind of time.

by Shai Sachs 2007-01-03 02:02PM | 0 recs
Re: theater

I understand and don't entirely disagree.  However, that requisite 5 to 6  years has past.  People have caught on.  That is why the term "Security Theater" can be useful right now.  I believe that part of your point should be taken very seriously.  We must be wary now and particularly in a few years, when most people have let the last 6 years become a distant memory, that it is possible to be outsold by wingnuts selling idiocy wrapped in the same package.

by lockewasright 2007-01-03 03:07PM | 0 recs
Re: theater

good point.  perhaps reality-based security policy is a banner we can run on for now against "Security Theater", and then reevaluate in a couple of years when things have shifted a bit.

by Shai Sachs 2007-01-03 05:09PM | 0 recs
The genesis of Security Theater

I do not agree that Security Theater, as I understand it, or the terms of the debate were crafted in the 1960s.  

By the 1960s, Security Theater already dominated our national discourse.  The completely fictitious and utterly meaningless 'missile gap' was a big issue in the 1960 election.  The Viet Nam War and LBJ's belief that he had to escalate it or face charges of 'losing Viet Nam' was Security Theater.

This all began in the aftermath of WWII and the apparent success of the New Deal.  The generation coming of age at that time had known no other world other than FDR's world.  And they were very happy with it.

The Republicans, in danger of fading into history, began to make charges of treason and weakness against the Democrats.  It worked.  They have been singing the same song ever since.

Security Theater endured not just because of its success with the electorate.  It was funded and promoted by massive corporations that owed their existence, let alone their steady flow of income, to massive government spending on Security Theater.

In a hundred years or more, Americans, if there is still a country of people who call themselves by that name, will realize it was all a sham.  It will be little noted by anyone other than historians, however.  The question of why any free people would make those choices will be a puzzle.  But it will be like contemporary historians examining why the great mass of a Europeans, who considered themselves to be Catholic Christians, put up with the Borgia Popes, or why so many people enlisted for the Crusades.

by James Earl 2007-01-03 10:32AM | 0 recs
Re: The genesis of Security Theater

I think that Security Theater has happened in most of the military conflicts in the history of our species in every place that the species can be found.

I understood Matt to be saying that the 60s createed much of the terminology that defines discource today and that we must preserve that while adding some of our own. To that end, he suggest "Security Theater" as some of the new terminology that we must added to the vocabulary that the 60s gave us.

Even if I understood him wrong... that's what I am saying.  I say that because I think that he has a great point.  It would be great if our dialogue brought about a discussion of real security vs. pointless showboating for political expedience.

by lockewasright 2007-01-03 12:32PM | 0 recs
Re: The genesis of Security Theater

Exactly.  Theatricality is part of warfare and can be used to increase freedom and efficiency.  Security Theater is counterproductive PR manipulation by the state to increase perceived action over real risk reduction.

by Matt Stoller 2007-01-03 01:07PM | 0 recs


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