Security Theater at Its Finest

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security theater

Security Theater in China

I have always been a people watcher. In fact, some of my most profound early travel memories are of sitting on buses or trains and watching. Watching how people interact with each other and how they don’t. Today too often everyone simply stays in their cell phone bubble, but that is the topic for another post.

One of the places I often watch people while traveling is in a security line at an airport. After awhile the frequent traveler starts to see all of the same stereotypes repeated. There is the old couple in the precheck line who takes forever and inevitably set off the metal detector, the annoyed business man who has to tell you how much “he hates this” and how he flies 150K miles per year and a dozen other types as well.

What Is Security Theater

Well, I am just the person who sits back, complies and watches the show. The show, or Security Theater involves grand gestures or confusing policies made by TSA or other officials in the effort to keep us “safe”. Some say the entire act of airport security is theater, but that isn’t a debate I am trying to have. You can have that discussion with Mr. 150K Business Traveler.

When something is theater for me, it is often unevenly enforced or not enforced at all. A good example of this is the policy of having to place liquids together in a ziploc bag. This is rarely enforced anymore, but every once in awhile you will run across an agent who yells at you for not having all of your liquids together. Does this policy make us safer? I doubt it considering most places do not enforce it.

Security Theater is Everywhere

Of course security theater doesn’t only apply to the United States. It is everywhere. What prompted me to write this was an experience I had in China last week. In Shanghai, all of the entrances to the subway have security checkpoints with xray machines for bags. Everyone is supposed to place their bag in the scanner before entering the subway. They must have spent a ton of money to install these scanners in every single station.

Well, the other day I was walking through a checkpoint when the person in front of me was told by the security officer to place his small backpack on the xray belt. He kept walking slowly and the security officer kept his hand in front of the man trying to stop him for about 10 feet. Then, a dejected look came over his face and he gave up. He looked at me with embarrassment and then directed me to place my bag.

I didn’t think much of it at the time and figured it was just an isolated incident. Until I saw it happen again and again and AGAIN. Four times in three days I watched people completely ignore security officers who pleaded with them to place their bags on the scanner. In CHINA! It is obvious that these officers have no authority or people would listen. The government spent millions to install and man these stations, but it is all a show. Security theater at its finest.

So why doesn’t the Shanghai Metro have officers with authority manning these machines? I really don’t know. I do know that the existence of the machines has to make people feel safer. Or perhaps it is just another method of control. To be honest I really wanted to keep walking one day to see what would happen, but that would be wrong in so many ways considering I was a guest in their country. Oh and I sort of don’t have “seeing the inside of a Chinese Prison” on my bucket list.


We live in a world where people are increasingly afraid of what could happen. Legitimate dangers exist and I think sometimes these dangers drive people to create theater. Sometimes this works and sometimes it is counter-intuitive. Still, where is the line between security and theater? I don’t know, so I do what I can to comply and enjoy the show when it comes to my doorstep.

What is the biggest example of security theater you have seen while traveling?


  1. Gatwick. With the damn liquids! I had all my liquids in a nice, clear bag. All very neat and visible. But it wasn’t one of THEIR bags. So she made me change bags. Well not everything would fit in one bag so I had to have TWO bags. (major eye roll). So what did I do once I got to the gate? Put everything back the way it was! So much wasted time and energy. And god forbid you travel with hand sanitizer…..

    • Your plastic bag is not approved. You may be a threat unless you use our plastic bags.
      This is a great example of security theater.

    • Yes! London airports in general are a bit over the top. Last year at Heathrow they questioned me for my bluetooth headphones because they had never seen “a model that looks like that” before! 🙂

  2. I’ve seen many instances of clear theater play out all too often.

    In HNL a few years back, I watched TSA give up, tell everyone to keep their shoes on/laptops in bag/liquids in bag and walk through a metal detector as they kept the x-ray belt moving, never once reviewing any times in a bag.
    Last time I was in FRA, transferring to a flight to Berlin, I had steel-toed shoes and forgot. They rescreened me, and I was so used to taking off my shoes, I neglected to remember the metal in them… set off the metal detector, they pulled out of line to secondary where I explained my shoes. They scolded me, and to my shock, just took my shoes and put them through the x-ray — no rescreening of me.
    At SFO, I once was traveling with two bags — a laptop bag filled with various computer equipment, and a duffel-type bag filled exclusively with clothes (no liquids even). They decided one of my bags needed to be hand-searched, and pulled off the clothes bag and handed me my laptop bag. The guy had a surprised look on his face when he just found clothes, but seemed unwilling to admit his mistake in searching the wrong bag, so I just stood there as he meticulously screwed up my folded clothes. Awesome.

    And, of course, the biggest theatrics is pay to play. I think it finally ended, but when airlines would offer premium tickets TSA precheck, or sell it as a add-on. If lesser security checks only cost you $20, aren’t the extra measures in the non-precheck lanes a joke to begin with?

  3. Just went through TBIT at LAX with wife and baby. Due to the liquid baby formula, we had the choice of either my wife or I to receive a pat down. Obviously I took the pat down, but giving the travelers the choice is a gaping hole in security.

  4. Most of my travelling is done domestically (USA). The biggest security theater I see is in any US airport. A few months ago when the TSA was deliberately holding up lines (I don’t remember if it was a strike, encouragement for everyone to pay for Pre-check, or just objecting to low funding levels) and there were pictures of the lines and delays in every online news source. Many people missed their flights and you saw the airports filled with hundreds of people just standing and sitting around in the open areas. That was the moment it dawned on me that the TSA was completely unnecessary since nobody was trying to blow us up.

    Think about it – the TSA themselves inadvertently packed thousands of Americans in enclosed spaces, in airport lobbies (there’s no security screening to enter the airport lobby), in multiple very busy airports throughout the country, during peak summer travel time, with the media broadcasting these events, and exactly ZERO incidents of terror happened.

    But like you said, it’s theater, so sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.


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