Boston Marathon’s No Bags Policy is Simply Security Theater

I’m a bit late to the party on commenting about Boston Marathon’s new no bag policy, but life/work got in the way of blogging. I don’t think anyone was surprised that there are changes in the name of security for races, especially for the Boston Marathon in the aftermath of the bombing. I am not arguing that changes shouldn’t be made in order to increase safety and security for the runners and the spectators, but I am frustrated with some of the changes that are being made and they are nothing more than security theater.

Security theater is a term coined by Bruce Schneier to describe countermeasures taken by agencies to increase feelings of security without actually increasing security itself. In short, it’s all for show. Schneier describes several examples of security theater in our lives, from TSA in airports, security in stadiums, and banning of certain objects and behaviors (such as taking photos). Schneier gave this great TEDx talk on perceptions of security and the reality of security in our world. Perceptions of security and the reality of security don’t always match and this is a particular problem when we feel safe, but situation does not actually warrant that feeling.

One of the key points that Shneier makes that is that security is a trade-off. In the essay, The Psychology of Security, Shneier writes:

Security costs money, but it also costs in time, convenience, capabilities, liberties, and so on. Whether it’s trading some additional home security against the inconvenience of having to carry a key around in your pocket and stick it into a door every time you want to get into your house, or trading additional security from a particular kind of airplane terrorism against the time and expense of searching every passenger, all security is a trade-off.

I remember in the weeks after 9/11, a reporter asked me: “How can we prevent this from ever happening again?” “That’s easy,” I said, “simply ground all the aircraft.”

As people, as society, we need to decide what trade-offs we find acceptable. Grounding all the planes permanently would definitely ensure that no terrorist will ever be able to hijack a plane and crash it, but the costs of banning air travel is not something that as a society we’re willing to tolerate. Schneier points out:

It makes no sense to just look at security in terms of effectiveness. “Is this effective against the threat?” is the wrong question to ask. You need to ask: “Is it a good trade-off?” Bulletproof vests work well, and are very effective at stopping bullets. But for most of us, living in lawful and relatively safe industrialized countries, wearing one is not a good trade-off. The additional security isn’t worth it: isn’t worth the cost, discomfort, or unfashionableness. Move to another part of the world, and you might make a different trade-off.

Schneier very correctly argues that not all security theater is bad. When people feel insecure and the reality of the situation does not warrant those feelings of security, it does good to bring in a little security theater so that people feel safer and behave in a manner that corresponds to reality. Security theater is a problem when it’s used to raise feelings of security without actually making us secure or when the costs of security theater outweigh the benefits.

After the Boston Marathon bombing, race directors began making changes to their bag policy for runners. Some races eliminate bag check-in all together. Other races insisted that runners use clear plastic bags. The Boston Marathon decided that runners will not be allowed to bring bags with them to the start of the race. In past years, marathoners were able to check bags at the start that were then brought to them to the finish line. The reasons why bags are specifically targeted are because 1) Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev used backpacks to hide the bombs and 2) bags can hide contents. The questions for the no-bags policy are: 1) Does this policy actually increase security? 2) Does this policy increase feelings of security? and 3) Is the cost of the no-bag policy a good trade-off?

I don’t believe that the no-bag policy actually increases security. In order for the no-bags policy to actually increase security, we need to believe that there’s a possibility that a terrorist is going to register for the Boston Marathon. To register for the Boston Marathon, the terrorist will either need to train and BQ in another marathon OR be a charity runner. This seems like more work than what a terrorist would do since it’s much easier to simply be a spectator, which is exactly what the Tsarnaev brothers did.

Does the policy increase feelings of security? Possibly, because we tend to view actions as having a much bigger effect than they actually do. We see that the race directors created a new policy in reaction to the tragic event and we perceive the change as increasing our security. However, I don’t think these no-bag policies (or the clear bag policies) actually increased feelings of security either because after the Boston Marathon bombing, no runner was saying, “Oh, I’m not going to ____ Race because they still have a bag check,” or “I’m doing this race because they only allow clear bags.” Runners were still going to races, regardless of bag check policies (but grumbling if bag check was eliminated).

Is the cost of the no-bag policy a good trade-off? In my opinion, no. I recognize that a bag-check service, particularly for a point-to-point course is an additional cost and burden to the race organizers. No bag check means less work for the organizers, however, it eliminates a very valuable service to the marathoners. I don’t think that a no-bag policy is a good trade-off for security because it does nothing to increase actual safety. Neither do I think it does much to increase feelings of security. You might ask, well, maybe the no-bag policy will act as a deterrent for the potential terrorist. Interesting question, but I don’t think the terrorists were ever planning on using bag checks anyway. I think race organizers are simply using security concerns to eliminate some costs.

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12 thoughts on “Boston Marathon’s No Bags Policy is Simply Security Theater

  1. There are going to be 35,000 runners this year and hundreds of thousands of spectators. The BAA cannot control most situations. This is one area that they can control so they will. They have a lot on their plate and they want to cover their bases and asses to make sure everyone is safe. I don’t mind the extra precaution. I don’t take anything with me but gels during marathons anyway. I’ve read where some people say this new rule has ruined their marathon experience. Seriously? I think if that’s the case, they shouldn’t be running it in the first place.

    • Yeah, saying that no bag check ruined the marathon experience is an overstatement, but it is a great convenience for the runners. Race organizers can’t get rid of bag check easily. NYC Marathon tried in 2012 (pre-Sandy), but there was such an uproar that they were forced to bring it back. I don’t see the no bag policy as actually increasing safety because the potential terrorist is going to be a spectator, not a runner. I see the no bag policy as a way for the race organizers to get rid of a huge logistical work in the name of “safety.”

  2. I am always perplexed at knee jerk reactions to this stuff. Like how after the attempted shoe-bomber, we know have to take of our shoes in the security line. What if it had been a bra-bomber?

    • Schneier wrote a lot of the uselessness of checking our shoes, and the TSA in general. The only reason why we’re safe in the air is not because of the TSA, but because terrorists are such a a small unlikely event.

    • You’re definitely right. The potential threat is going to come from a spectator, not from a runner. Some local races around here did clear bags for a while and then they quit. They realized that the extra layer of caution of unnecessary. I’m glad because I’d rather we use our own bags that we can reuse, rather than have those single use plastic bags. It’s not good for the environment.

  3. This is a really interesting perspective on all this and I do agree with a lot of what you’ve said. The last race I ran in where they put any sort of bag check security measure in place at all was Baltimore last year and it was clear plastic bags only. I was fine with and appreciated that because while I would have made do, no bag at all would have been an inconvenience. But I never thought of it from the standpoint of Boston where you have to qualify or raise money for charity in order to run it.

    As the poster above mentioned though I do think that some people might be a bit melodramatic about the situation. The whole experience of the Boston Marathon ruined by a bag check? Seems a little over the top to me.

    • Yup, some people are being melodramatic about no bag check. I think the Boston Marathon organizers are using security concerns as an excuse to get rid of the logistical nightmare of checking in bags at the start line, then schlepping them to the finish. You can’t get rid of bag check easily. NYC Marathon tried it in 2012 (before Sandy forced its cancellation) and there was a huge uproar about it, so the race organizers were forced to bring it back.

  4. I agree that it’s security theater. But I also think that, more than using security to cut costs, race directors are simply protecting themselves. They now have a heightened responsibility to ensure the safety of the participants in their event–not just from heat, exhaustion, etc., but from crazy people. God forbid someone actually did sneak something in a bag and did harm with it, the BAA would be lambasted and probably sued for not taking every precaution within their power. Likely? No. But neither was a bombing at the marathon. And that happened. Spectators are out of their control. But they can control the runners who pay the entrance fee. Really, I think this is them watching their own backs more than anything. To the point of terrorists taking the easy route, I have to disagree. 9/11 was anything BUT the easy route. If that can happen, a crazy person can qualify for and run the Boston Marathon. Likely? No. Protecting against and predicting all the possible times, places and ways a terrorist could strike is impossible. But I think terrorists have shown a willingness to do much more beyond what is merely “easy.”

    • I should clarify what I mean by easy. Yes, the terrorists are willing to do difficult and labor intensive things (such as learn how to create bombs and fly planes) to achieve their purpose, but that’s because it’s the most feasible way to achieve their goal. In the case of Boston bombing, they don’t need to become runners in order to be at the Boston Marathon because they can do it being a spectator. I’m sure if the only way they could have bombed the marathon was by being a runner, they would have signed up to be charity runners, but there’s an easier alternative path to achieving their goal, so they’ll take the easier path.

      The threat of terrorism at the races is not going to come from the runners. It’s going to come from the spectators. This is why I think race organizers controlling who has access to the start/finish areas (because those are the areas that are most likely to be targeted) is a good idea. Allow the marathoners to the finish area, not the spectators. This is a good security measure in my opinion.

      Part of the reason why I don’t completely buy the idea that the Boston Marathon is eliminating the bag service from the start to the finish line is for security reasons is because if they really are concerned that bags are a security threat, then why don’t they eliminate it all together? Racers can do bag check at the finish line.

  5. Interesting post and comments. I agree and don’t think it’s going to make the event safer or have anyone necessarily feel any safer. The sad truth is that if someone wants to do something crazy they will find a way. There are also going to be tons of clothes at the start-line that people are just going to toss now.

  6. the big issues that bugs the crap out of me is that this IS an issue…seriously, crazy people and terrorists, i just will never understand. that said, i agree with a lot of what you have to say as well as Karla. the no-bag check i do feel is just for show and race directors feel like they have to respond in some way to give entrants that ‘security’…but at the end of the day, i don’t really feel it will make any lick of difference. the sad thing is, not to sound like a total pessimist, is that if a crazy person REALLY wants to do something, they’ll find a way. and if we were to try and think of EVERY possible dangerous situation/scenario that could happen and look for a way to avoid it we’d 1) go insane ourselves trying to think of everything and cover all bases 2) turn entering a race into something short of a cavity search.
    i believe that race directors need to be more aware, more-so of the CROWD than the runners, that the bigger the event the more security detail around the course certainly…but again, you can only plan so much, and from there there is a fine line between doing things that are just more for show than effect. somewhere there’s gotta be a balance between paranoid and secure. where that is, well, it goes back to my first sentence, it’s very sad this is even an issue.
    sorry for a ramble/rant comment. :P

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