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The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, transformed American approaches to security. Color codes alerted people to heightened risks. Jersey barriers went up, surrounding public buildings in major cities. And air travelers found themselves navigating a maze of rules and search measures. One week after the Boston Marathon attacks, some worry that another wave of security measures are imminent. We explore the tensions between openness and security.
- Benjamin Wittes Senior Fellow in Governance Studies, Brookings Institution.
- Harvey Molotch Professor of Sociology and Metropolitan Studies, New York University; Author, "Against Security: How We Go Wrong at Airports, Subways, and Other Sites of Ambiguous Danger" (Princeton University Press)
- Gary LaFree Director, National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), University of Maryland
MR. MARC FISHERFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Marc Fisher sitting in for Kojo. This hour, last Friday, one of the nation's proudest cities froze still. Bostonians locked their doors and stayed inside while law enforcement hunted for a 19-year-old terrorism suspect. The scene ended a weeklong saga that brought back some of the fear and anxiety that hunted the nation after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
MR. MARC FISHERBut since 9/11, the scope and reach of national security has changed dramatically. Today, we move through endless zigzagging lines at airports. We understand that any public area is a potential target, and we know that the government might be watching closely. The question now is: How do we move forward when we're faced with terror again? Do we sacrifice more freedom for the sake of safety, or do we accept that individual liberty comes at a cost?
MR. MARC FISHERJoining me now to discuss these issues are Gary LaFree. He's director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland. And Harvey Molotch, professor of sociology and metropolitan studies at New York University and author of a recent book titled "Against Security: How We Go Wrong at Airports, Subways and Other Sites of Ambiguous Danger," and he joins us from the NPR studios in Bryant Park, New York.
MR. MARC FISHERAnd, Gary LaFree, last week, we saw how responses to terror can really be all over the map. At the one end, we had this enormous lockdown of a major American city, and yet, at the other end, as a Washington Post poll showed this morning, the concern is obviously great last week, and the interest was great, but nowhere near the levels that we saw back in 2001 after 9/11.
MR. MARC FISHERAnd obviously, that was an attack of much greater scope and much greater shock. But do you think that the way in which the United States -- people who live here react to terrorism has changed in any important ways over the last 12 years?
MR. GARY LAFREEWell, I think it has changed in some ways. Right after 9/11, there was a quite bit of talk about, you know, it seemed like the British, for example, seem to be in some ways more resilient and better responding to these kind of events than the United States. And many people at the time also pointed out that part of this was because the British had been dealing with terrorism for 30, 40 years. I think, unfortunately, the longer you deal with the issue, in a sense, the more it becomes kind of a routine situation to response to. So I think we're adapting over time.
FISHERAnd is that change as this sort of normalization, is that something that is beneficial to us? Are we dealing with this in a more healthy way, or are we deluding ourselves?
LAFREEWell, I think it is and I think, generally, a good thing. I mean it's a balancing act as in a democracy between security and civil liberties issues. We recently very right before Boston in fact conducted a national poll of Americans and asked them to give responses about what they thought about terrorism.
LAFREEAnd one of the interesting things about the poll I thought is that there was still a fair amount of concern among citizens about terrorism, more concern, for example, than their concern about crime and other kinds of public issues, and also, a general sense that the government hadn't been doing a bad job on the whole issue. So I suppose maybe Americans have adjusted to some extent over time.
FISHERAnd, Harvey Molotch, when Americans chose to be more concern about terrorism than they are about crime, is that a realistic and rational response? Is there something more emotional going on there?
PROF. HARVEY MOLOTCHRight. I think it is a more emotional response, but those who study danger, risk and mishap noticed for a very long time that people tend to worry about the wrong things. So the number of people who die in bathtubs by falling in the tub is much greater than who die -- the number who die in response to terror.
PROF. HARVEY MOLOTCHBut we don't have a war on bathtubs. We don't even have a war for bath mats. We just don't acknowledge this differentia, people afraid of flying, when in fact driving cars is much more dangerous. So there's always been a disproportion.
FISHERYou can join our conversation about national security and civil liberties. Does one trump the other? Do you still think of Washington as prime terrorist target? Do ever think of leaving the area because of the threat of terrorism? How is your life been affected by heightened security measures since 9/11? Give us a call, at 1-800-433-8850 or email us at kojo -- K-O-J-O --@wamu.org. You can also send us a tweet to @kojoshow. Gary LaFree.
LAFREEYeah. I was just going to respond. I think one of the things that makes terrorism a relatively effective tool in fact is what Prof. Molotch just alluded to. You don't have to kill a lot of people. You don't have to have a lot of fatalities to really capture the public imagination.
LAFREEI was sort of thinking about having survived the Washington sniper case some years ago, had friends say, well, look, there are more people being killed in car accidents than there from the sniper, and yet, I can't ell you when I was at gas stations pumping gas, I was trying to decide if I was the tallest target in the parking lot. I think the total randomness of terrorism actually gives it cache far above the number of actual casualties.
FISHERCertainly, I'm glad you brought up the D.C. sniper case. I know our -- the Washington Post poll found that it was the sniper incident that well more even than 9/11 gave people this sense of threat in personal safety at least here in the Washington area because of the randomness, because it seemed that ordinary people were being plucked off in highly unusual places whereas the 9/11 attacks targeted, you know, logical military or political targets for the most part.
FISHERAnd, Prof. Molotch, is that -- is there a logic to the way in which we chose to or involuntarily respond to these threats and sort of create a hierarchy of fear?
MOLOTCHWell, I think some of it is a circumstantial like the type of threat, a sensational threat, the number of people who die, of course, but also the political response. And so right from the beginning in this -- the case of the Boston Marathon, the president tried to turn down the flame of anxiety and concern by saying let's wait. We don't know things yet and in general kind of pushing a calm.
MOLOTCHAnd that I think has persisted through a number of people in authority, and I think that has been helpful in terms of not generating the kind of anxiety that otherwise might be put in place. But I think there is always this in a way choice, not only how individuals respond, the president or governor or a mayor, but the particular way that an anxiety whatever the level of it is gets sort of translated into law, into institutional and organizational forms.
MOLOTCHAnd we have to remember that 9/11 not only made some or a lot of people anxious in our cities but also resulted in really two wars, which were extraordinary reactions to this domestic issue and this kind of anxiety. So it can really take a very large-scale form, the way in which people felt anxiety is translated into policies.
FISHERI was talking to a psychologist in California last week who said that the way politicians and other leaders react to terrorism really sets the tone and really can help shape the way in which the public responds. And obviously, after 9/11, we had politicians going both directions, on the one hand, telling us that we need to completely reshape the way we handle security in this country and the way we restrict our civil liberties.
FISHEROn the other hand, you had people, like John Kerry, saying, well, terrorism is -- really should be thought of more as a crime rather than a unique sort of event. Is there, Gary LaFree, a sense in which the politicians are really giving us cues about how upset, how frightened to be?
LAFREEI think there definitely is, and 9/11 is the quintessential example. But I also think politicians have a very difficult time here in the sense that because terrorism has these two characteristics that are in some ways in opposition to each other. On the one hand, the events like 9/11 are incredibly rare. We track about 104,000 terrorist attacks around the world going all the way back to 1970.
LAFREEAnd 9/11 is still the deadliest of any attack and unprecedented certainly in U.S. history. So it's a huge event. And in some ways, you have the same problem with terrorism you have with ordinary crime. If there's a horrendous type of crime in a community, you can bet your bottom dollar there's going to be 50 very tough bits of legislation at the next legislative session aimed at that.
LAFREESo you're in the situation where you're making policy based on extremely rare events, which you'd think has its negative consequences. On the other hand, what we know about terrorism is when terrorists find something that works, they tend to repeat it rapidly. So suicide bombings, once we get suicide bombings, we get a lot of them.
LAFREEImprovised explosive devices, once they get that, we get a lot of them. So they have to -- you have to pay attention to it as well. So it's really -- I think the trick of policy is sort of threading the needle between not over-responding to an event like 9/11 or the Madrid bombings or the London bombings but also not ignoring the threat.
FISHERGary LaFree is director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland and Harvey Molotch, a professor of sociology at New York University. In your book "Against Security," you argue that we've actually gone too far in some ways, and there's a lot of what you call security theater going on in this country where these are not really measures that protect us so much as give us the sense that someone thinks we ought to be protected. Is that -- do you think that's what's going on with the airport lines that we all suffer through?
MOLOTCHRight. I think it is. And it's not only that we go too far. We go too stupid. So, for example, the airport security lines, which you just referred to, is a gathering up of a target that otherwise would not exist. There are more people waiting in line to go through security than will be on a plane, and that doesn't make any sense. Nobody has been checked yet. So that would be a perfect opportunity for terrorists to strike.
MOLOTCHAs opposed to, for example, locking the door of the pilots' cabin on the plane, that interferes very little with people. It's relatively economically cost, low cost. And it really prevents anyone from hijacking a plane and using the plane itself as a bomb, so one can differentiate between things that really do make sense and things that don't make sense.
FISHERWhat would you replace the security line at the airport with?
MOLOTCHWell, first, at every level, there are things you can do. You can make that line a better line. That's the first thing you can do. The line is oriented as a mechanism of control. It's quite militaristic. As opposed to having people there to help people boost a suitcase onto the something, a line that's calm -- if a line is calm, if the scene in calm, it makes it easier to spot someone who might be suspicious for one reason or another. If everyone is nervous because of the line itself, then that becomes more difficult. There are many small things to do along -- in that kind of way.
MOLOTCHThe other thing is to move that line very, very fast, and that means that if you can't inspect everybody, then you just let lots of people through because you are, as I said before, accumulating a target at the one end that otherwise wouldn't be there. And you're imposing huge financial costs. Whatever security people you do have are also busy looking for shampoo rather than looking for things that might really matter. There are lots of details of this that I could go into.
FISHERWell, we'll definitely get into that. But, Gary LaFree, those security lines -- it always strikes me that when you have people all packed together and they're being yelled at constantly and told what to do and where to move and all of that, it's a stark contrast from the way in which the same situation is handled in many European countries, in Israel, for example, where it's much, as Harvey Molotch just said, a much calmer kind of situation and where there's a lot more discernment going on by the officers about who really needs attention.
LAFREEYeah, I would totally agree. And, in fact, I've always been a bit nervous by just how many cases there are in our database, where the attack, the explosion happens at the ticket counter or in the security area and not after people who have actually boarded the plane.
LAFREEAnd I think what Prof. Molotch is raising is an even more important general issue, which if ever there is an area where we ought to have people like Prof. Molotch and others studying the situation and trying to offer some objective advice, it's got to be terrorism, where -- which feeds on subjective thought and basically thrives in the situation where we have poor information. And yet this is an area that's really, I think, lagged behind a lot of the other social and behavioral science areas. So I think we need a lot more work like this to try to figure out what's working and what isn't.
FISHERLet's hear from Diane. It's your turn, Diane.
DIANEHi. I just wanted to make a comment to you. You were talking about the security versus your -- violating, I think, your civil liberty rights. And my comment was simply this, that I have found, through the years, that all these surveillance cameras being out in public, which if you're a United States citizen and law-abiding and you're out in public and not doing anything to create a crime, you're going to -- you're not going to really care if Big Brother or whoever is watching.
DIANEThese cameras have caught many, many crimes. And if we had not have these cameras, we would not have known who these people were who had these bombs. So I don't feel that having surveillance cameras and -- or have the electric eye around is infringing on my civil liberties when I go out in public because I know it's there for my protection as well as everyone else's. And it helps to expedite the law enforcement process to catch the criminals who were doing that. And I think, on a small scale, it also discourages some of those who care about that and not being caught.
FISHEROK. Thanks, Diane. Gary LaFree, the -- Diane represents one view in a debate that has pretty well split the nation, which is whether the government has not done far enough to combat terrorism or perhaps had gone too far. And she's clearly on the, you know, has done the right amount or maybe-not-enough side.
LAFREEAnd Diane's response actually is very typical of Americans in the poll that we just conducted in the United States, where they're sort of saying, look, we're willing to give up some amount of privacy in exchange for greater security, but there are limits to that. And we were also -- I actually found interesting in the poll that more than -- almost 60 percent of respondents basically thought the government was actually doing a pretty good job -- a very good job and 85 percent, a fairly good job. So I think that actually tracks with what Diane is saying in her comments.
FISHERWhen we come back after a short break, we'll talk to another guest who will talk to us a little bit about the legal aspects of this issue. That's after a short break. Stay tuned.
FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. And we are talking about the balance between protecting against terrorism and defending civil liberties. You can join our conversation at 1- 800-433-8850. And joining us now by phone is Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution who has been studying the legal aspects of these issues.
FISHERAnd, Benjamin Wittes, there are a number of questions around whether this suspect will be tried and where whether, for example, he will face terrorism charges in federal court. How will that decision be made? And is the notion of doing this in federal court primarily meant to open the path to killing him?
MR. BENJAMIN WITTESWell, I mean, the decision has already been made in the sense that the Obama administration has made clear that it means to try him in federal court and does not consider other options which are being urged upon it by certain congressional Republicans as legally available him both, because he is a U.S. citizen and because he was captured domestically and because, you know, frankly, the facts of the case actually probably don't support an enemy combatant designation at this stage.
FISHERAnd the administration is using, so far, what's known as this public safety exception in not reading the suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, his Miranda rights. Why does that matter?
WITTESWell, it may not in the sense that, you know, the Miranda decision is designed to prevent the government from using against you statements that you may have made without -- in interrogation without being advised of your rights. I think, in this case, the likelihood that the government is going to need any statements that Mr. Tsarnaev makes to make a case against him is vanishing way remote. And so I think it may be a largely theoretical question.
WITTESBut there is this exception to Miranda which, you know, generally, requires that the police or, in this case, the FBI advise you of your constitutional rights that allows them to defer doing so when there is an exigent public safety need to conduct an interrogation or questioning without advising the suspect of their rights. And the government, in this case, has a, you know, certainly, non-trivial arguments that that would be called for in the circumstance.
FISHERAnd you mentioned earlier this notion of the enemy combatant. This was certainly a term we hear a lot after 9/11. And Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain are among those calling for Tsarnaev to be held in tried as an enemy combatant. But your concern is that that would not hold up legally?
WITTESWell, so you know, one of the things you have to be in order to be designated as an enemy combatant is an enemy combatant, right, and...
WITTES...that's actually a term of art in law that does not simply refer to any bad guy with, you know, who has a foreign-sounding last name and a bomb. The idea of an enemy combatant is that it -- this is a person who is, in a meaningful sense, part of the fighting cadre of some organization or foreign military force with which you're meaningfully at war.
WITTESAnd though the Tsarnaev brothers appear to be, you know, have traveled to Chechnya -- or one of them did anyway -- and seemed to have been influenced, at least to some degree by some sort of radical Islamist clerics, there's not any evidence that I've seen anyway that connects them to any group that the United States is at war with, much less suggest that they are, you know, part of that group for purposes of in a way that would enable their detention under the laws of war or under, you know, the authorization to use military force. So I actually am skeptical at this point that you could hold them as enemy combatants if you wanted to.
FISHERBut if -- let's assume that in the coming weeks we learn that they -- the brothers indeed did train with one of the Chechen rebel groups or were inspired -- were actually put up to this by one of those groups. Would that -- what advantage would the U.S. government gain by then being able to call the surviving brother and enemy combatant?
WITTESWell, so -- I mean, first of all, it would probably have to be al-Qaida or some al-Qaida-linked group, not just any Chechen group because we're not actually at war with Chechen groups, right? But assuming you could show that there would be some -- that there's some -- that they were meaningfully part of an enemy organization, the advantage to it would be that, you know, you don't have to give them a lawyer. You don't have to suspend questioning when they, you know, assert a right to counsel.
WITTESYou have a lot more latitude in certain interrogation contexts. And you know, that is a, you know, a significant advantage. In this case, I think it's probably of relatively minimal value because, first of all, this is a person who's, you know, unable to speak anyway, at least for now. And so, you know, the -- it may be that the value of his interrogation, at least in the short term, is extremely limited.
FISHERGreat. Well, thank you, Ben Wittes, senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. Thank you for being with us. We return to our other guest, Gary LaFree, from the University of Maryland and Harvey Molotch from New York University. And, gentlemen, The Washington Post poll out this morning asks Americans whether they changed their daily plans or activities in any way as a result of the Boston bombing.
FISHERAnd only 6 percent of Americans said that they did, which is down from 53 percent who said that they changed their daily plans or activities in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Does this at all surprise you? Is this simply a reflection of the scope and perhaps a lesser shock after this bombing than after the original attacks 12 years ago, Harvey Molotch?
MOLOTCHWell, I would echo what Gary LaFree said earlier. The scale of the attack is less. And also, I think we've become more accustomed to these events and change out behavior less. The other phenomenon that is going on, however, is that we have been asked to do nothing differently than we did before. So there are -- at least since the bombings in Boston, there are no new security gates anywhere outside of Boston, at least. And so no one is being intruded on by the reaction -- by governmental reaction to those events.
FISHERAnd Gary LaFree, did -- does your research show that Americans believe that we over reacted to 9/11? Or do we simply face a different kind of threat environment?
LAFREEI'd say a different threat environment. We've actually had, I think, relatively little of that, at least in the national polling we've done. And I think there's actually quite a complicated security problem here when you think about it. And again, this is one of the reasons why I think terrorism can be relatively effective in the sense that, you know, where do you, you know, who do you aim at protecting in these sorts of situations?
LAFREERight after 9/11, for example, Homeland Security, I think, got a fair amount of criticism for going around the country and finding vulnerable targets. And you know, people we're identifying chemicals plants, et cetera, et cetera, but also things that many people saw as much less significant. So as a result, I think most of our -- many of our responses have been sort of ad hoc.
LAFREESo there's a liquid bombing, and then we have concerns about liquids. There's a shoe bomber, we have concerns about shoes. But it's actually, if you think about it, somewhat difficult to -- I mean, you can't come up with a security response for every possible event that might come up, and so we tend to have this ad hoc approach which, again, I think suggest that getting, you know, given that these security measures appear to be here to stay, let's do a better job of getting them right.
FISHERTell us about what security measures you think are the most important and which you think we could do without. Let us know whether you'd like to see better security following last week's events in Boston. Our number is 1-800-433-8850. Or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Here's Anne in Washington. Anne, you're on the air.
ANNEThank you very much for taking my call. One of my concerns is that as citizens and our response to this, the anxiety that some of us may feel is the anxiety that people throughout the Middle East who are in zones where the U.S. is doing drone bombing and has done other kinds of aerial bombing, they're thinking -- they're feeling this on a daily basis. And the numbers of their deaths in wedding parties and all kinds of situations actually far exceed the horrors of Boston.
ANNEAnd I think that we have to understand that it's U.S. policies, which are very much condemned around the world, that are responsible for leading young people like these bombers to feel desperation. They don't know what else to do. And if we don't get at the root of this, you know, I don't think the situation will ever be resolved in just talking about security measures and terrorists who feel they're not human beings who are pressed into situations where they feel that there's no alternative. It's not going to get us anywhere.
ANNEI'd just like to point out that before Obama was elected, there was a pretty massive anti-war movement in this country manifested in demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of people. And some people were convinced that the Democrats are going to get those extricated from the wars in the Middle East. That hasn't happened. And unfortunately, we haven't found other ways to respond to our government's policies yet. But we're really badly misguided. And there's just going to be a lot more tragedy unless we really grasp what this thing is about. Thank you.
FISHEROK. Thanks, Anne. Gary LaFree, the -- of course, conversely, the idea of using mass killers as the rationale for examining American policy seems a bit perverse, doesn't it?
LAFREEIt does. And I think, actually, you can certainly agree with much of what the caller is suggesting. On the other hand, the caller is also, I think -- you take the Boston case, and it also brings at just how complicated it is to come up with the kind of profile of terrorism. In fact, it's a great example of how complicated it is because on the one hand, the caller brings up grievances. So there's some argument that these two brothers had a political grievance. Chechnya has been fighting the Russians for many generations.
LAFREESome Chechnyans interpret the conflict as Muslim versus Christians. So you've got a grievance element. But it's so much more complicated in that you got the younger brother, who appears to have great affection for the older brother. And so one of things -- I mean, we've been surprised by -- a lot of the cases we've looked at of people engaged in terrorism haven't been people that are strongly politically motivated.
LAFREEIt's more like they've had a boyfriend or a girlfriend or a spouse or a relative who's involved, and they get involved. Or even they're part of a soccer club. So there are these other reasons people get in and do these horrible things that doesn't all fit this kind of grievance model or something that you really respond to in that level.
FISHERAnd do you think that the reason behind or the motivation behind a terrorist attack then plays an important role in how Americans respond to that attack? Is it related at all? Or are we mainly concerned with number or kind of people who've fallen victim to this tactic?
LAFREEI suspect that's far more nuance than we'd get. And a lot of times, you never really learn what the true motivation is. I mean, it's very difficult to sort these things out. And I think it comes back to a point that I'd mention again. I mean, we know more about dental problems and, you know, public transit than we know about terrorism. It's an area where we really need to be a lot smarter. And more work being done on these kinds of issues, I think, is very important.
FISHERHarvey Molotch, when you decided to title your book "Against Security," I would imagine that you're not opposed to public safety but rather are saying that that we've gone way too far in attempting sort of create the aura of protection when that's not really something we can provide, is that right?
MOLOTCHWell, again, it's going about it in the wrong way. So one of the things that we have learned from the kind of events and incidents that have taken place is that an enormous number of incidents are prevented by ordinary people, so the people who really have tried to blow up planes that -- in the U.S. experience at least, were stopped not by the security line, not by police, not by soldiers, not by dogs, but by flight attendants and passengers who spotted something going wrong on the plane and then do something about it.
MOLOTCHI also studied the New York subway system and you get the same picture there. There are threats constantly in the subways. And it is other passengers who pull people out from the danger in the tracks. And the workers in the system, as a routine matter, prevent children from piling up at the turnstiles and creating mayhem. There's all sorts of routines. And so if you enable people to help one another, that is a security measure. That's a very strong security measure. And that's not the way we construe this security apparatus at all.
FISHERWell, do you -- so therefore, do you think that the decision by the authorities in Boston last Friday to shut down the city, to tell everyone to stay inside was a mistake because you were removing from the streets literally a couple of million eyes that could've been looking for and perhaps finding the fugitive? And in fact, within minutes after they did lift the lockdown order, someone who went out of their house just to get some fresh air found the guy.
MOLOTCHYeah. It certainly raises that as a problem. And also the fact that so many people have cellphones, which are also cameras, is the surveillance apparatus of the society right now. And so we're all involved in surveillance, and all we have to do is be let free to do it. There was a controversy in the New York subway system as to whether or not they should be self -- cellphone-ready and whether you could use a cellphone in the New York subway system.
MOLOTCHAnd one of the arguments against it is that people could use them to set off bombs. But, of course, one of the arguments for it is that people could warn each other of danger. And so it's a matter of balance and waiting, but it's -- but that balance and waiting is not just about control and more control, but also about enabling participation on a massive basis as we watch out for one another, which is massively how we, indeed, have our security in this country.
LAFREEYeah. I think Prof. Molotch is bringing up an excellent point. I think one of the things that I've really picked up in the past 10 years of running the center that I run is exactly this point, that there's a sort of assumption among many people in the intelligence and defense industry that you can't give the public too much information -- they'll panic and do the wrong thing -- when the information we've got is exactly the obvious.
LAFREEMany of the success stories we have against terrorism are because the public has done something, including a group of citizens that brought down the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania after 9/11. And we see example after example of that, where it's really the public that has done such a fantastic job in combating.
FISHERWe saw it twice in Boston. We saw it...
FISHERThe police and FBI spent a couple of days trying to figure out who is the right person to look for in all of these images. And then, finally, when they went to the public and said, you know, here are the images, who are these guys, they found out within minutes. And then, again, after they lifted the lockdown order, after the police were not able to find the Tsarnaev brother, the -- some random person found him.
MOLOTCHAnd which, in fact, is what years of research on policing suggest, that unless the police are able to actively engage a participative community, it's very difficult for them to do their jobs. I have to say, though, in the Boston case, I think the police were in a tough situation where they had people that were clearly willing to take other people's lives. They didn't know the extent of the explosive they had available and so on. So it was a tough call.
FISHERWe'll talk more about that and get into the whole question of surveillance cameras and how much is too much and how to balance those rights of privacy in public places against the need for security when we come back after a short break. You're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Marc Fisher, sitting in for Kojo. Stay with us.
FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. We're talking with Gary LaFree, director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland, and Harvey Molotch, professor of sociology and metropolitan studies at New York University. Let's turn to Addie in Germantown. Addie, it's your turn.
FISHERYes. Go ahead, please.
ADDIEYes. Hi. Quick question. We all know that security is rather relative. Nobody can go into the mind of anybody plotting anything evil or good. I just got back from Disney World a couple of weeks ago, and I was really appalled by the way security was really lax going into the park at, you know, a certain points.
ADDIEYou know, the checking of bags, et cetera, was just so lackadaisical, really. I have to keep opening my bag. Can you please look to make sure I don't have anything with me? You know, really, how does the country or, you know, how do you put more enforced measures in so that things don't just become so routine, oh, it's just another bag I'm checking, go on through?
FISHERHarvey -- OK. Thanks, Addie. And, Harvey Molotch, I also have an email from Bonnie in Silver Spring who says, "I've returned from three different foreign countries in the past year, and getting on a plane in a foreign country, they do not check your shoes. Why is it necessary to take off your shoes going through safety checks to go out of this country but not to come into this country?" So can you address these sort of inconsistencies and the logical problems with the way in which we do go about security?
MOLOTCHWe have a lot of logical problems. First of all, the kind of -- the specifics of the security is not altogether in the hands of a group of experts, whether they're military or not. The -- there is a consensus in the political system where politicians say no scissors, outrageous, yes scissors. And then the people who -- at the TSA, the Transportation Security Agency, in effect have to respond to those things.
MOLOTCHSo what goes on at -- they call it at the -- "up the hill" intervenes in what goes on on the ground and at the airports. And so there's a kind of ad hoc quality to it. And as well as, Gary LaFree, or you did, Marc, refer to the fact that we respond to how it was done last time around. And so this constant reaction to the fact that someone put it in their underwear means now that we have these machines that check what is in our underwear.
MOLOTCHBy the way, I made a habit of refusing to go through the machine, so therefore I had to have a full-on body scan, including that they put their hands down in your pants to see if you could possibly have a bomb. And I would join your caller in telling you -- and revealing for the first time on air -- that they're not thorough, for which I was...
FISHERProbably grateful, I would think.
MOLOTCH...very grateful, and I think the person doing it was very grateful. And so these jobs -- that's another part of the security system. And Gary remarked about the, yeah, the need for social science, about what's it like to do these jobs.
FISHERBut who is this therefore aimed at? Is it meant to give us, as travelers, a sense of personal security, hey, everything's OK, we're going to touch your pants? Or is it aimed it dissuading the terrorist who's looking at this and saying, well, look at that, they're touching people, maybe I shouldn't do what I want to do? Who is it really aimed at?
MOLOTCHI think it's impossible to distinguish. So I've talked to very high people in the security systems, and they say things like, I had to make sure. I couldn't sleep at night if I didn't know we were doing everything possible. And so they then, in effect, for the bureaucracy and the part of the organization that they're in charge of, refer to checklists of things that are possible to do, and they try to do those.
MOLOTCHAnd so they're disengaged from the very harsh fact that we cannot have the security everywhere, that people do get bored on the job checking. The target -- and people in the security world use this phrase -- the target has a very thin tail. We don't know who's going to attack, how they're going to attack, where they're going to attack, so it leaves us vulnerable to the need to -- we have to do something, or so many people say, including our political leaders. We have to do something. But -- and we have to do it even if we don't know what this something is.
FISHERWell, one of the somethings is the use of surveillance cameras, and this is true on public streets, in private stores. And in Boston we saw the tremendous value of surveillance cameras. But today -- and yet surveillance camera still have this aura of being a sign of sort of a dystopian future like that in George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four." Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel the other day defended surveillance cameras in his city, and let's listen to what he had to say.
MAYOR RAHM EMANUELI will say, as I've always have, because we have continued to put cameras throughout the city for security purposes, they serve an important function for the city in providing the type of safety on a day-to-day basis, not just for big events like a marathon but day-to-day purposes.
FISHERGary LaFree, is the mayor right that surveillance cameras have this tremendous power to not only solve some crimes, such as we've seen in Boston, but also for day-to-day purposes, regular street crimes?
LAFREEI think there is some relatively good research, particularly in the U.K. and in London and particular, that suggest that they can be effective and, you know, it's part of this trade off. But you can get the sense from your two callers, in fact, that there's probably quite a bit of public support for it, unbalanced.
FISHERAnd do you think that the opposition to it or the discomfort with it has grown since 9/11? Or are we still in that mode that we're pulled into after 9/11 of saying, you know, if it helps get these guys, I'm all for it?
LAFREEI think from our polling, this national poll we just did, I think the latter, more than I would have expected. I mean, 11 years after 9/11, the public does still seem support pretty strongly these kinds of measures.
FISHERSteve in Arlington, I think, has a contrary view. Steve, you're on the air.
STEVEI do. I believe that human beings have natural rights, and it should expect to be able to travel freely, to communicate, to share ideas, to make their opinions known and not freedom is what made the United States what it once was. And that any infringements of those rights should be very carefully considered because once a government gets permission, you're never going to get them back. And frankly, I'm a lot more afraid about the infringements of my rights than I am about some nebulous, frankly, and statistically insignificant terrorist.
STEVEAnd I think that our government had over 2,000 police officers in Boston leading up to the marathon, and, nevertheless, terrorists were able to perpetrate a crime there. And so what's the end line, 5,000 police officers, everybody getting strip searched, cameras on every corner? I think it's insane. And we're spending far too much of our resources making an argument that, to me, is enriching a very small segment of the terrorism-vendor society (unintelligible).
FISHEROK. Thanks, Steve. Harvey Molotch, this is -- are surveillance cameras a case that transcends the notion of security theatre? Is this a tool that really does have a function that makes it worth limiting rights or privacy in some way?
MOLOTCHThere again, I would say it's a balance, and one of the things that the cameras do is they put everything up, including people who are committing small crimes that -- for example, buying marijuana or something like that. And a lot of -- not just the cameras, but a whole lot of the apparatus, including the see something, say something campaigns, picked up small-time people who are doing small-time things, as well as, of course, people who are doing nothing that's wrong, whatsoever, but having their privacy interfered with.
MOLOTCHBut I must say that the cameras -- and Gary will know more about this than me -- but the cameras don't stop crime. What the cameras do is record a crime, and that can be helpful because it -- when -- especially if it's a major crime, you can then start a tracing networks and -- by identifying those people. And that's conceivably a way to prevent future crimes. So I have a more mixed story on that than the caller.
FISHERGary LaFree, will you consider surveillance cameras? Obviously from what you're saying, Americans don't seem terribly bothered by many of the security measures that have been put in place in the last decade. Is there a point at which, you know, if we did move in the direction of London where there's literally a camera on every corner, would that be too much for Americans to bear do you think?
LAFREEHard to say, and I think, you know, probably it would be -- we'll have an ad hoc response to that like other things. And New York is actually moving certainly pretty heavily in that direction already. You're probably going to get less pushback there than you would in more rural area. And you could tell from the last caller, from Steve's comment, there is not obvious unanimity on the plan either.
LAFREEIn fact, I think this is the real -- a real challenge about terrorism in the sense that, in a way, it's like other rare phenomena that can be deadly, like earthquakes. I mean, how do you get the public to take the kind of steps they need to prevent the next earthquake when you don't really know when it's going to happen, what may not happen for 50, 60 years? And so that's, I think, in a way, a kind of similar situation. We know they'll probably be other attacks and probably even big attacks, but we don't know when. We're not very good at predicting them.
FISHERThere's a satirist in San Francisco, Charlie Varon, who did a routine some years ago in which he impersonated an earthquake prevention agency representative who went on radio shows and then very earnestly asked the government to take these various measures to stop the earthquakes. So clearly, Americans have absorbed the idea that a certain degree of terrorism is going to happen and there is very little that the government can do about it, lone actors if that's what these brothers turned out to be.
FISHERVery difficult to see in advance and stop from -- as opposed to a large movement like al-Qaida. So have Americans absorbed this notion that there's a certain degree of terrorism that's just going to happen?
LAFREEI think to some extent they have. And, you know, if you're in the terrorism research business, people are fond of saying that, you know, this is an ancient phenomena. You can take it all the way back to biblical times. But I think what's really different about the society we live in is how we -- as a planet, how we've chosen to live. If you look at -- going back to about 1850, the most densely populated place in the planet was the Soho neighborhood of London, which had about 400 people per acre.
LAFREEWhen 9/11 hit, they were about 50,000 people per acre. So even if you'd had the technology to have fully loaded jet planes back in 1850, it would have been very hard to have killed as many people that died in 9/11. And I was just looking at the statistics that say that essentially by 2015, there'll be 23 cities in the world with more than 10 million inhabitants. So we are increasing choosing to live in very dense areas, which has a whole host of benefits, but it also provides unparalleled opportunity for mass destruction.
FISHERAnd, Harvey Molotch, it was The Onion last week, the satirical newspaper, that said that terrible events like the Boston bombings are just part of the world we live in now. They said, going through one's day-to-day life with the uneasy feeling that a devastating act of violence could happen with little rhyme or reason is just how it is now. That's not really satire, is it?
MOLOTCHNo. And I'd also say it's the way it has always been, and so people died in different ways in the past than they now die, much of it -- much infinitely to our advantage. And -- but getting used to the -- or accepting -- I mean, it's a very, very old story. They need to accept death and that nobody gets out of this alive anyway and that some things will happen. And what matters is what we do in the interim, including how we set up the society. We have to do something, and there is that cry to always do something, something we can do that make it better in the interim.
FISHEROK. I'll have to stop there. Harvey Molotch, professor of sociology at New York University and Gary LaFree from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism at the University of Maryland. Thanks so much to both of you. I'm Marc Fisher, sitting in on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Thanks so much for joining us.
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