Thursday, January 21, 2010

Why leaders respond to terrorist attacks with "security theater"

I happened to be flying around quite a bit over the holidays, and I was appalled by the stepped-up emphasis on security theater at various airports.  The sorry spectacle compels me to draw attention to something the attack of the underwear terrorist on Christmas Day had in common with the attacks of 2001.

In a previous post I called the Bush Administration's reaction to 9/11 "scatter shot."   In the aftermath of those attacks, the perceived need to protect the administration from accusations of incompetence must have been overwhelming.  Unsurprisingly, the Bush Administration propagated the notion that the attacks of 9/11 were not something US leaders could possibly have foreseen.*   Assailants with inconceivable motivations had carried out the inconceivable.   

To defend itself from seemingly inevitable criticism, the US government embraced hitherto inconceivable approaches (torture, spying on citizens,  assassinations, preemptive war) in the name of preventing future terror attacks.  Over time, in the public imagination, the inconceivable response -- theatrical, outrageous, lethal, onerous --  validated the inconceivability of the attack.   

Now that another administration has been caught off-guard by an attack that had also been widely anticipated,  we should watch that the same motivation does not dictate its response. 

Americans have come to expect that every attempted terror attack leads to novel counter-measures: new acts of "security theater."   It ought not look this way. The root of every terrorist attack is an intelligence failure.   Intelligence failures invariably connote leadership failures.  Why?  Because making decisions on the basis of intelligence is the essence of what a leader does. 

On the other hand, taking novel action -- the more outrageous and theatrical the better -- is the tried and proven approach to diverting attention from a failure of leadership/intelligence.   That's why in the aftermath of terrorist attacks an elected leader may favor unprecedented measures over  incremental ones.  That also helps to explains why, even years following a major terror attack, systems for coping with intelligence may actually function worse than before as we are coming to realize in the aftermath of the Christmas bomber.
* An absurd claim

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