Our Unfounded Obsession with Safety Is Costing Us our Freedom
by Lenore Skenazy
As you inch your way through security at the airport, you’ll be relieved of your penknife and terrifying tube of Pepsodent. Your unopened can of Coke will, of course, be thrown in the trash, along with any snow globes, and off go your shoes.
When at last you’re reshod and passing the duty-free shop, you can buy a well-deserved bottle of Scotch . . . which you can then bring on board, crack against the cabin wall and use as you would a machete.
So why all the security kabuki from the TSA?
That’s just one of the questions posed by Tracey Brown and Michael Hanlon in their new book, “Playing by the Rules: How Our Obsession with Safety Is Putting Us All at Risk.”
Britain-based Brown, head of a group called Sense About Science, was in New York last week to promote her book, as well as a new mindset she’d like us to adopt when it comes to security. From now on, she says, when someone insists, “This is for your own safety,” ask for evidence.
Without demanding evidence of the need for a procedure and its efficacy, all sorts of crazy rules and regulations are allowed to take root. Brown recalled a vacation she took to the States a few years ago, when she and her family went for a swim in Lake Michigan. It wasn’t a stormy day, yet they were barely in up to their waists when one of several “safety sentinels” patrolling by canoe yelled, “Go back! Go back! You have passed the safe swimming depth!”
But we’re only in three feet of water, Tracey objected.
“It’s not safe!” the guard repeated.
“One of our patrol canoes might run into you.”
Not all precautions are this patently absurd, but there are plenty that make life more frustrating without making us safer. A friend once sent me the rules for her daughter’s school science fair. These included, “No organisms (living or dead). No microbial cultures/fungi/molds/bacteria/parasites.” And, my favorite, “No plants in soil.”
Because of all those tragedies set in motion by plants, I guess. Especially plants in soil.
Those rules came from a school in Colorado, a state which also once boasted a library that banned unaccompanied children under age 12 because “Children may encounter hazards such as stairs, elevators, doors, furniture . . .”
How do rules like these take hold? Brown blames a deadly combination of political grandstanding, fear of lawsuits and 24/7 media that react to any unfortunate event, no matter how rare, by ratcheting up the anger and demanding that something — even something really stupid and pointless (they don’t put it this way) — be done.
The authorities oblige and the result is often a rule or law passed in haste with no regard to its cost, necessity or possible adverse consequences.
Naturally, air travel provides a great example of this cycle. The aftermath of 9/11 not only brought us the TSA — a bureaucracy that now costs over $7 billion a year — it also created a bonanza for the safety-industrial complex. So now, every once in a while at the security checkpoint, I am, like many other travelers, somehow picked to hold out my hands and have them swabbed, or to have my suitcase swabbed. A machine then analyzes the swab for explosive residue.
“These machines have been introduced across the world,” says Brown. “They cost millions.” How many of them have detected the chemical residue of an explosive?
According to Brown, “Not one.”
The problem is that once a piece of machinery or bit of rigmarole becomes part of the safety gauntlet, it doesn’t get reviewed. Says Brown, “There’s no set-point when someone says, ‘Is this really doing anything?’ ”
Brown would like us to subject safety procedures to the same kind of testing we do on drugs: Does it work? What are the side effects? Is it worth the cost?
Without us insisting on rational, provable reasons for the safety hoops we must (carefully!) jump through, fear junkies and snake oil salesmen will keep piling on the precautions. These include many we don’t need — like the swabbing device — and some that are downright dangerous, like not letting kids learn any real science, for fear they will somehow hurt themselves with a potted plant.
Hard though it is to believe, we’re living in the safest time in human history. Before we try to make it safer with new restrictions, let’s ask whether they make any sense. Otherwise we’re throwing away our freedom as pointlessly as a snow globe.