Progressive Principle One: An End to Security Theater
by Matt Stoller, Wed Jan 03, 2007 at 06:59:11 AM EST
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.