Is there such a thing as too much security to thwart terrorism?

I have a confession to make: I hate going through a metal detector whenever I attend an Ottawa Senators’ hockey game.  It isn’t that it takes too long (it doesn’t), or that the staff are mean (they are actually quite nice, very Canadian), or even that sometimes the line backs up out the door and when the temperature hits -35 as it has of late that is really bothersome.  No, what bothers me is that I think it is unnecessary.

Look, I get it.  The powers that be at the Canadian Tire Centre decided that in light of the very real terrorist threat they had to take this step, although I cannot remember when they implemented the policy or why.  Like it or not (and I don’t) this is the new normal in the West, not only because of 9/11 but because of all the other attacks on concerts, restaurants, pedestrians, etc. since that date.

Nevertheless, here is an interesting question: is there such a thing as too much security and if so, what is the threshold people are willing to accept?  This question came up at a security conference in Las Vegas this week where I delivered the keynote address and it did lead to a passioned debate (all the attendees were from the security sector).  In the end, one gentleman asked a very pertinent question: have we ever actually put that query to the public?  In other words, what do THEY expect vis-a-vis security, whether they are in Las Vegas or elsewhere?

We assume that everyone wants to be safe and no one wants to find themselves in a terrorist or active shooter situation (the October 2017 mass casualty attack at the Mandalay is still resonating big time in Las Vegas).  If that assumption is correct, does it also stand to reason that people are ok with ANY level of security that providers deem appropriate ?  I am not sure we know the answer (maybe we should just ask people) but anecdotally there were those that have complained about the increasingly onerous demands made on passengers at airports (first it was no blades on board – then again who thought that allowing blades was a good idea in the first place? – then removing shoes, then no liquids, then…you get the point).  Airlines were hearing these complaints and were probably telling the government (i.e. the TSA) that unhappy clients could choose other modes of transportation, thus affecting their bottom line.

So is there a fine line between reasonable security and over-security? I am not sure.  Complicating things more, several delegates pointed out that litigation had entered the equation as well – there were fears that lawsuits could be launched in the wake of a successful attack charging that companies had not taken all reasonable measures to prevent such attacks.

Risk assessment is ultimately an inexact art.  There are always too many variables to consider and too many unpredictable factors that enter into efforts to determine just what the  threat level is. Yes, there are a lot of smart people putting their minds to this problem but I have yet to see any approach that is 100% foolproof. As a consequence, we do what we can and hope for the best.  And there is yet another wrinkle: as one attendee noted very accurately, we always respond to the last threat, not the one that has yet to occur (although I heard an interesting presentation on ‘red teaming’ – an approach that tries to think outside the box).

In a perfect world our security decisions would respond to known threats as determined by our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies.  But even they are not perfect.  Hence the piecemeal strategy.   I fear that is how it will remain for the foreseeable future.

Back to the Canadian Tire Centre.  I happen to think that the placement of metal detectors there is indeed overkill, even if I understand why it is done.  In all my years as an intelligence analyst I never once caught wind of a plot against an NHL game.  Not once.  After all, you’d have to be a very dedicated terrorist to wait in -35 to carry out an attack.

No, security is not going away.   Get used to that.  It would still be a good idea however to ask patrons how much they are willing to accept if for no other reason than to show providers whether or not they are on the right track.  In the end though, smart, determined terrorists will defeat all but the most sophisticated security obstacles.  Maybe another question we need to put to our citizenry is this: what level of threat are you okay with?  Is 100% safety the expectation?  Perhaps not.


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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