Bruce Schneier has a great phrase for the post-9/11 world, "security theater." It's easy to guess what it means: the appearance of improving security, versus actual improvements. Theater is as important to counterterrorism as it is to terrorism. In both cases, you're trying to inspire a particular emotion, either terror or sobriety. Unfortunately, theater isn't everything.
That's what makes anecdotes like Jane Galt's experience with the TSA infuriating. Airport security procedures are pretty mindless. (Are shoes the only apparel in which terrorists have considered hiding explosives?) Of course, the TSA needs to standardize its response at the security checkpoint, to ensure some rigor and efficiency in the process. Mindlessness, in this sense, is a natural part of bureaucracy.
Mindlessness at that level needs to be balanced by the impression of mindfulness at other levels. Even though the TSA checkpoint staff need to keep going through the motions, other parts of the TSA need to be thinking a few steps ahead of potential terrorists. Unfortunately, the recent history of Red Team analysis at the TSA is not good. The Red Team, which tests the sort of methods terrorists might use, succeed at alarming rates, as high as 90%. In 2006, a former FAA Red Team member who was appalled at the pre-9/11 vulnerabilities said that the situation had not significantly improved. The 9/11 Commission was hardly impressed with the TSA's progress.
Let's be generous and assume that skilled professionals in the TSA are out-thinking terrorists in the deadly game of measure and countermeasure. The excessive secrecy of the Bush Administration has ensured that no one will hear this comforting news. Obviously, there are ways of talking about any such programs without giving too many details.
Counterterrorism and theater aren't antithetical. In fact, counterterrorism can't succeed without theater--it just has to be the right kind.
[Thanks to Outside the Beltway for the original link to Jane Galt's piece.]