Perhaps it is a sign of the times; when I got the report last night that New York’s Times Square had been shut down due to a suspicious vehicle, I ignored it. Suspicious vehicles and packages shut down public places all the time. It has become an inconvenient routine in New York and here in the D.C. metro area, and it is hardly newsworthy when it happens. When the reports were updated to say that the vehicle had been ‘smoking,’ I immediately thought the worst: maybe they had forgotten to get their oil changed.
It wasn’t until I woke up this morning and learned that the vehicle was loaded with flammable material like propane and gasoline that I finally believed this was an apparent attempt at a terror attack. Judging by the lack of media attention last night, most people had the same or similar thoughts to mine. We assumed it was nothing.
This proves to me that we’ve gone too far. Our supposed preparedness for attacks and disaster has rendered us numb, and thereby less able to deal with them when they really occur. This isn’t unique to terror attacks, though. Think about this: In most office buildings, people ignore fire alarms. Every time the workers have heard the alarm go off, it’s been a pointless drill or a false alarm that just inconveniences them for no reason whatsoever. One day, when the building is really on fire, people will sit at their desks ignoring the alarms until they see smoke or some other indication there’s a real problem—and by then it might be too late. Have regular fire drills made us safer?
Not long ago, I was out to lunch at a local restaurant and the fire alarm went off. “Should we leave?” I asked the waiter. “Oh, no,” he said, looking a bit surprised that I had asked. “This happens all the time.”
Does anybody blink an eye when an airport metal detector beeps? When you hear a fire alarm, do you think there’s really a fire? When you hear that some public place was evacuated due to a suspicious package or vehicle, do you think there’s really a bomb? For most of us, the answer is ‘no’ in all cases. This is human nature; we get complacent when faced with a constant barrage of false alarms. The ancient story of the boy who cried ‘wolf’ illustrates it flawlessly. The boy continually cried ‘wolf’ when there was no wolf; later, when there really was a wolf, nobody believed him.
I’m not proposing that we do away with fire alarms, airport security, or the careful handling of suspicious packages and vehicles . . . but maybe we can be a little more reasonable about it. Fire alarms are pretty obvious and, as such, buildings and schools don’t need monthly fire drills. Heck, I’d argue they don’t even need annual fire drills. A sounding fire alarm should mean, ‘there is a fire or other serious emergency, get the heck out of the building.’ The alarm should only be sounded if the current situation merits that kind of urgent attention and action. When it sounds, it should mean something . . . every single time.
The same goes for security scares. Use some common sense before evacuating whole city blocks. Obviously the situation in Times Square yesterday merited an evacuation, but Times Square and other public places have been evacuated countless times before for the most trivial, idiotic reasons. An illegally parked car with nothing else suspicious about it is not reason to evacuate thousands of people. A laptop bag left at a bus stop is not automatically reason to call in the bomb squad. Let’s use some reason. We have to balance our well-intentioned efforts to be secure against the cost of that security in false alarms, complacency, interruption, and inconvenience. There is a point of diminishing returns, and we’ve long past it (much like we have in the realm of computer security).
We also can’t expect people to keep sacrificing in the name of security; at some point we have to draw the line. Are our airports really safer because you can’t meet your family and friends at the gate any more? Or because you can’t take your toenail clippers, pocket knives, or water bottles on the plane with you? Is our Capitol building really safer because people aren’t allowed on the steps anymore? Is the Statue of Liberty really safer because only a small number of people are allowed to go up to the crown? Is the Empire State Building safer because people coming in off the streets of New York City have to turn in their personal pepper spray canisters at the door?
We’ve managed to annoy and inconvenience law abiding citizens with these steps, and for what? For a negligible reduction in the likelihood that we’ll be victims of certain, specific kinds of terrorist attacks? Personally, I’d accept a negligible increase in the likelihood of attack in return for being able to travel without being accosted, analyzed, and examined at every turn. Let’s sound the alarm and act decisively when something real happens; leave us alone otherwise.