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Security Theater: Feeling Safe at the Airport Does Not Make You Safe

January 15, 2019

(This article originally appeared in Loss Prevention Magazine)

Feeling safe and secure is a sentiment we all desire to obtain. We often reflect on investing in security systems and software for our personal settings. As for the nation and the world at large, security theater is an imperative option. However, it cannot be your whole program. Security theater has a lower cost than elaborate security methods. Nonetheless, it may divert parts of a budget for actually effective security measures. In this article, I will focus on security theater in airport settings.

So What is Security Theater?

Security theater offers precise security measures to make people feel more confident about their security. “Security theater is the practice of investing in countermeasures intended to provide the feeling of improved security while doing little or nothing to actually achieve it,” according to “Security Theater and Learning Theater,” an article for As terrorism continues to occur, fear and devastating traumas arise in airports. The truth is that it can happen anywhere at any time. People should consider security theater, so they can feel safer without exerting a lot of effort. ID cards, for example, are to be checked by the guards even if there isn’t a legitimate explanation to request verification.

A similar route was taken after the 9/11 incident occurred. The National Guard had soldiers stationed at US airports holding guns with no bullets. Instead, the guardsmen carried loaded magazines on their belts, according to the Associated Press. In addition, metal detectors were placed in numerous places of business, shopping centers, and lodging centers after the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. The metal detectors served as a deterrent without any plan of how to respond to an activation in some areas. Security theater offers some level of deterrence, yet no actual additional safety in these examples.

The practice of randomly searching bags through different systems, which is backed by huge funds, is also another example of security theater. In regard to airport security measures, programs such as Secure Flight, CAPPS (Computerized Assisted Passenger Prescreening System), TSA Precheck, and Clear are implemented and use screening profiles from airport passengers in the past. If a search is random, it offers a potential deterrent but nothing more.

Security theater will not keep people safe; it makes people feel safe. Due to the fear created by nonstop global terrorist attacks, this type of security practice has expanded outside the TSA (Transportation Security Agency). The TSA has shown to be 95 percent ineffective. It has failed to detect a threat in sixty-seven out of seventy tests conducted by the Homeland Security Office of Inspector General. A second round of tests showed little improvement.

The inclination for security theater originated from the interplay of both leaders and the public. When people develop a fear about their security status, leaders must do something to make the public feel safe, even though it will not necessarily make them safe.

Thus, many police departments have been using a show of force to imply that they are everywhere. The show of force happens when a heavily armed unit is placed in a specific area of a city, mall, or event, and rotated. While this is security theater, these units are fully equipped and ready to respond. The main difference is a show of force by the New York City Police Department Hercules unit has a real deterrent value because the unit is armed and mobile. The TSA on the other hand is not.

Infuse the Show with the Reality

To be clear, I believe everyone should use security theater to help mold the public perception and make people feel safe while offering a deterrence to deviance. The TSA uses real security measures that have an impact; however, my point is to remind all of us the importance of a balanced approach to security programs. Furthermore, the TSA has a mismanagement issue and leans more toward security theater because of its ease of implementation.

With all the measures related to security theater, its real purpose should be to infuse itself with actual security. People need to feel safer so that orderliness will be maintained, and they feel confident in whatever they do and wherever they go.

Tom’s column regularly appears on every issue of LP Magazine. To subscribe to the printed version of the magazine and enjoy other great content visit