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More security doesn't make us more secure

Scott Smith.
Scott Smith.AP

My father and I went to the movies recently, in Florida. As we approached the ticket holder after buying our tickets, I was asked to open my bag. My father, who had no bag, was asked to empty his pockets. That is one sign of American moviegoing, post-Aurora.

Another sign was exhibited by a man named Scott Smith, who also went to the movies last week. When he went to see "The Dark Knight Rises" in Westlake, Ohio, just west of Cleveland, Mr. Smith brought with him his gun. Also, ammunition for said gun, and several knives.

According to local Police Lt. Ray Arcuri, an off-duty police officer and movie theater manager were suspicious of the bag Smith was carrying and stopped him. His attorney, Matthew Bruce, said in Smith’s defense: “With the recent shooting in Colorado, and the other incidents around the country in regards to threats, he felt that he needed protection.” For that, Smith faces 21 weapons charges -- 19 of which are for the small arsenal found in a search of his home. (Smith was granted bond last week, with accompanying orders to stay clear of the movie theater he visited with his weapons.)

Always in those instances I am transported back to the weeks and months after the attack on the World Trade Center, when I was frequently stopped for “random” bag checks  by military men armed with gigantic machine guns in the train station more than 100 blocks from New York’s financial belly. Other times when I'm stopped, I'm reminded of those (countless) extensive bag searches at the airports that resulted in getting my expensive perfume confiscated, or, my less expensive contact lens saline solution confiscated. Who exactly decided that a bottle of an explosive concoction over 16 ounces could kill more people than a bottle of an explosive concoction under 16 ounces?

The arbitrariness of surveillance and the unnecessary presence of force always confuses me, and never makes me feel safer. When acts of terrorism occur in our country the solution is always the same: resurrect and ramp up security as means of controlling and quelling the population. But are is it constructive if these measures agitate, and make its citizens hysterical and paranoid? And does it actually make us more safe?

A December Vanity Fair article analyzed the effects of post-9/11 domestic security proliferation, which included $1.1 trillion spent on homeland security:

"To a large number of security analysts, this expenditure makes no sense. The vast cost is not worth the infinitesimal benefit. Not only has the actual threat from terror been exaggerated, they say, but the great bulk of the post-9/11 measures to contain it are little more than what Schneier mocks as “security theater”: actions that accomplish nothing but are designed to make the government look like it is on the job. In fact, the continuing expenditure on security may actually have made the United States less safe."

So we know that increased security doesn't actually make us more secure. A New York Times/CBS News poll from a year ago found that New Yorkers feel the world is less safe than they did before the attacks on September. More spending, more paranoia.

Smith walked into a movie theater with a bunch of weapons, supposedly to protect himself. Smith has been identified as unhinged and heavily medicated.  It’s possible Smith may be lying, he could have been attempting to copycat the Colorado mass shooting. But let us presume Smith is telling the truth. He becomes an extreme version of all of us. All of us who become irritated when we are stopped at the airport for our saline solution, or reminded of the possibility our theater may become the site of a mass shooting when we get our bags checked on the way to an early evening PG-13 flick.

Regardless of his intention, the crux of the underlying issue of sensationalism, the restoration of “post-9/11” rhetoric and action work together to instill fear. After Aurora, after the Sikh temple rampage, after today's fatal shooting of a constable and a civilian near Texas A&M -- it's important that we recognize our country's collective inclination to attribute these random (attempted or successful) acts of violence to deranged people we need work harder to protect ourselves from. It's the wrong approach. If we remove the layer of easy and pathological sensationalism, the debate will change. It’d be about gun control. It’s easy to vilify the mentally ill and unstable.

But the real work of the media and citizens alike is to put pressure on changing the substance of these post-crisis dialogues, not to give into the vicious cycle that perpetuates them.

Below find Melissa's Footnote from yesterday's show. Transcript here, courtesy of the Lean Forward blog.