The Mythology of Security

DALLAS, TEXAS - DECEMBER 27:   A TSA officer s...
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Ever since the Christmas Day attempted bombing of an airliner, security has been a prime topic of conversation – and the blogosphere is filled with analysis and advice. 

Technological : Scientific American surveys various technologies which might help but are not foolproof – and suggests that perhaps an approach of varied types and levels of security procedures is better. Matt Blaze cogently argues that this kind of variety makes it easier for terrorists (hat tip to Bruce Hamilton). From a statistical point of view, the smartest thing to do would be to send several bombers to different airports, each with a ticket to board flights taking off within 5 or 10 minutes of each other. Some would certainly be caught, probably at the more stringent screening locations, wherever they happened to be that day – but others would already have gotten through.

Israeli-style screening: Rafi Ron, a former Israeli security official was interviewed on NPR (I can’t locate a link), saying that the problem is that the screening happens just at the airport.  He suggested that, in essence, the identity and background check needs to begin hours and days before the check-in process.  “By the time they get to the airport,” he said, “we know who everyone is. There are no strangers to us on the airplane.”

One reader commented, “The real problem in adopting the Israeli approach is that it requires a very bright, clever and intensively trained staff. From the TSA representatives I’ve met, nice as many are, they would be unlikely to be able to handle the job to Israeli specifications.”

Always behind:  We seem to have a knack for guarding against what terrorists already did, while they are planning what to do next.  After Richard Reid, I would take bets that no terrorist tries a shoe bomb – but millions of shoes have been inspected as a result of his actions.  This is likely to be the only Underwear Bomber, but I fear we may find ourselves taking off our underwear, figuratively speaking, in perpetuity.  If, as some have suggested, the next round of bombs are in bodily cavities, heaven help us! We’ll all be taking the train…

There is no security.

All of these viewpoints reminded me a homily Fr. Peter Lambert gave during Advent. We were startled when he said, quite forcefully, that security is a myth, a fantasy with which we delude ourselves. I’m sure that he was speaking from his decades as a military chaplain – but he was right.

For the most part, we live and act as though the norm is constant good health, steady employment, families and friends, shelter and food, acceptable weather, stable economy, and freedom from violence, be it domestic, criminal, war, or terrorism.  When we get up in the morning, those are our expectations – unless we are aware of one or another threat to that blessed existence. Then we try to deal with the threat.

This is a mental model of a mostly benign, very stable and predictable state of well-being, which we come to trust and expect.  Our anxieties are calmed and we feel safe.

An alternative view would see the tremendous variability – the people with no job, a job they hate, a job that pays poorly, a job whose demands lead to physical illness.  Or unexpected accidents – our local newspaper started publishing stories about people paralyzed after skiing accidents just after we got 2 ft of snow.  Children rebel, all marriages go through troubled times and some end.  Health is not certain –  a person may get on an airplane that harbors no terrorist but still die of a heart attack.  This view does not calm our anxieties, and we do not feel safe. Yet it is much closer to the reality of our lives.

Spirituality of Security. In his homily, Fr. Peter suggested that we can either build a fantasy world in which all is secure because we make it secure, control its security through our actions, and respond rapidly and effectively to every threat – or we can accept the radical insecurity of the world, in terms of all those concrete things we cling to.  We find that we are much smaller, we cannot control everything, and we are vulnerable.  Only in this reality can we also become fully human.

We don’t simply enjoy each other – we recognize that we need each other, we are not complete in and of ourselves.  After all the technology and screening and regulation, it was the swift and united action of several passengers on the plane who prevented the explosion: they needed each other.   And in this incompleteness, we can also encounter the divine, the One in whose love we are ultimately safe.

Give up? Does this mean we should just see our lives as some gigantic casino, cease to lock our doors, drive safely, or hope that airport security improves?  No, of course not.  There is a subtle, but important, interior shift in our reasons for these actions.  While we act in all prudence to maintain our safety and health, there is no ultimate security in it.  The Rule of Benedict urges monastics to “keep death daily before your eyes” – probably so they remember that ultimate security is of a different order and nature – and one can only live in that security through an encounter that draws one into the deeper reality.

Much of the frenzy, the finger-pointing, the wild speculation about who should have done what about the Underwear Bomber carries out the work of re-building the the fantasy world in which all threats can be met and controlled.  Somewhere, somehow, we need to let go of that fantasy of self-sufficiency. Most of the rest of the world, and most of our ancestors through the centuries, had no such illusion of safety. Perhaps this is why they also found it so much easier to recognize and experience the presence of the One whose is love, the only answer to the deepest fears.

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