On Wednesday morning, I saw an article stating that one third of those surveyed want bags and purses checked before letting customers into movie theaters, and an equal number want metal detectors placed outside theaters. Fourteen percent even want an armed security guard placed in each theater. (This was before the news broke of a man who was shot after brandishing a pellet gun at a Nashville theater; a new survey might show even more support for metal detectors at movie theaters.)
Of course, the odds of being gunned down in a movie theater are vanishingly small. But a substantial number of Americans have become convinced that no risk is ever worth taking, and that no infringement on freedom or privacy is too great, as long as it can somehow be justified by a concern for safety. Needless to say, this is not the mindset that enabled Americans to tame the wilderness and civilize the continent, or even to go to the moon. (We haven’t gone to the moon in a while, but we do make sure our children are wearing bicycle helmets when they ride next door. Somehow, I suspect there is a connection.)
The people who want to pass through metal detectors and have their possessions pawed by security guards to go to the movies are also, I suspect, the same people who enjoy going through airport security. The blunt truth is that, on 9/11, airport security did exactly what it was designed to do: it kept guns and bombs off of airplanes. Four terrorists armed with box cutters will never be able to take over a plane again. In fact, even on 9/11, four terrorists armed with box cutters lost control of United Flight 93, because the passengers realized that the hijackers weren’t planning to land in Cuba or the like, but wanted to crash the plane. Instead of recognizing this, we turned the TSA loose to make us all take off our shoes and endlessly to search people in wheelchairs, octogenarians, and Medal of Honor winners trying to take their medal to a presentation at West Point.
The people who want metal detectors outside movie theaters were also the ones Condoleezza Rice was appealing to with her deceptive statement that “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” Similarly specious arguments are being made to the same people today to derail the Iranian nuclear deal. As our failed intervention in Iraq shows, an inability to tolerate small risks posed by foreign countries is no more rational than the inability to tolerate the small risk posed by going to the movie theater. And trying to eliminate such small risks completely is far more costly to us than attempting to contain those risks by means short of war would be.
One hopes that those eager for the rest of us to go through metal detectors and be searched before going to the movies decide simply to stay home instead. And that those who become agitated by the prospect of an unfriendly nation possessing a minute fraction of our own enormous arsenal pause before concluding that the elimination of such a risk is worth going to war.
Thomas Piatak is a contributing editor to Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He writes from Cleveland, Ohio.