Security theater, path dependence, and snow globes

22 June 2023, 0914 EDT

I just returned from a two month fellowship at Edinburgh University, accompanied by my family. The trip included talks in Germany, Italy and England. These side-trips required a lot of packing, and generated a lot of souvenirs, specifically snow globes to mark each place we visited.

This led to a problem when going through airport security, however. Snow globes count as liquids, and have to be included in those annoying little plastic bags; as a result, we had to find tiny snow globes to avoid the wrath of security agents. Failure to do so runs the risk of your bag being pulled aside to be searched, which–especially if transferring through Heathrow–can be an agonizingly long process.

As I sat and waited for the security guard to decide if my Florence snow globe was a secret bomb, I thought about how path dependence and security theater had combined to create this ridiculous situation.

The ever-expanding airport security

Many may not remember why we have to take all liquids and gels out of their bags. It has to do with a specific disrupted terrorist plot. In 2006, British law enforcement discovered a group of al-Qaeda operatives were planning to board several transatlantic flights with the components of a bomb hidden in drink bottles. They would assemble the bomb during the flight and detonate. They arrested those involved, and authorities put in place the restrictions on carry-on liquids.

Other airport annoyances are also tied to disrupted plots. In late 2001, an al-Qaeda operative attempted to detonate a bomb that had been hidden in his shoe but it failed to go off. Passengers subdued him. Authorities then required everyone boarding a plane to take off their shoes.

Do government agents really think terrorists would fill a snow globe with explosive liquid?

And of course TSA only exists because of a tragically successful plot. Before 9/11, private companies handled airport security. Many experts believed the attack demonstrated the need for a central government agency, so the Transportation Security Administration was established, moving to the Department of Homeland Security in 2003.

We are stuck in a situation in which airline security is insufficient to prevent all threats, so authorities add another layer, which also proves insufficient, so they add another layer…

Security absurdity

There are valid debates about some parts of airport security. Terrorists could always try the liquid plot again. Scanning machines may deter attempts to bring weapons onto planes. And terrorists could respond to any sort of loosened restriction by quickly targeting the vulnerability.

But there is little evidence current procedures are the result of constant threat assessment. Do government agencies really have evidence that terrorists continue to show interest in liquid plots? Hasn’t increased passenger and crew scrutiny decreased the likelihood of a successful shoe bombing (in fact, that’s how the shoe bombing was stopped)? Based on my time spent at DHS’s intelligence division, most security assessments are best guesses.

Too many people have internalized this as normal.

Additionally, there is little evidence that TSA is actually disrupting any plots. Tests of TSA’s airport screening effectiveness have found a 95% failure rate. Airline plots that were disrupted happened through surveillance or the quick action of bystanders.

And technology has changed. When we flew out of the excellent Fiumicino airport near Rome, we were told not to remove liquids from our bags. They had a machine that could scan them as part of the regular process. I don’t know how accurate that machine was, but it can’t be worse than the regular machines. Surely others could develop and use similar machines if the goal truly was a safe airport. Why is airport security technology frozen in 2006?

The restrictions on snow globes illustrate all of this. Do government agents really think that a terrorist would unscrew a snow globe, carefully save all the floating snow-stuff, fill it up with an explosive liquid and then rebuild it? Do they really think they’ll reverse this process on the plane? Or was it easier to just add snow globes to a list than to rationally think it through?

Bureaucratic politics or path dependence?

At first I thought this was just bureaucratic politics. TSA’s behavior seems irrational if we assume its priority is stopping terrorism. If its priority is maximizing its influence, however, these policies make perfect sense. The more responsibilities TSA has , and the less anyone is able to question them, the better. TSA is a massive bureaucracy that will fight to keep its authority. And no politician wants to open themselves to charges of being “soft on terrorism.”

But the snow globe made me think this is really path dependence. As Pierson defined it, path dependence is a “dynamic [process] involving positive feedback.” That is, once a policy is in place it becomes very difficult to change course. The policy creates institutions, incentives and political rewards that ensure it continues. At some point, people forget the initial point of the policy and stop thinking about it when they implement it.

Likewise, Mahoney and Thelen discussed the ways institutions change over time. I’d argue that what we’re seeing with TSA is a case of “drift.” TSA has failed to adapt to the current threat environment. Powerful veto players- TSA itself, public opinion on terrorism–prevent outright changes to TSA, but the government’s failure to ensure TSA is effectively countering terrorism means it has drifted away from that initial purpose.

How do we get out of this process? Often people point to an exogenous shock, but we’ve had those–in the form of continued terrorist threats–and that has only led to expanded security theater. Mahoney and Thelen discuss change agents, but they argue they’re constrained by the same factors that led to the drift in the first place.

I worry that too many people have internalized this as normal. People get annoyed, but they are annoyed during the entire air travel experience: how is this any different? So there will be no push to change these policies, and we will continue to waste massive amounts of taxpayer money and travelers’ time without actually decreasing the threat from terrorism.

Happy traveling!