The Pitfalls of Too Much Security

By Gideon Scopes

Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.
—Benjamin Franklin

Earlier this year, my mother fell and broke her hip, requiring emergency surgery. The hospital at which the operation would take place was one to which I was no stranger. One of the specialists whom I saw as a child had been located there, so I had visited it many times growing up. This time, though, the sight that awaited me when I walked in the front door was very different from all those times before. What had once been a spacious corridor was now blocked off by gates. Visitors (and presumably outpatients) waited in line at a security desk where they stated their business at the hospital, showed their drivers’ licenses, and were issued temporary ID cards that they scanned at the gates to gain entry.

Being familiar with the arguments made by Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, I knew that it was highly unlikely that this heightened security arose in response to a legitimate threat that did not exist over the past several decades. Crime rates today are some of the lowest they’ve ever been. While such measures might be warranted in a high-crime neighborhood where there was a genuine threat, the county in which this hospital is located has one of the lowest crime rates in the nation. Given this situation, there are two questions that we ought to be asking: Is this really necessary, and what price do we pay for it?

Imagine the effects on a family fighting cancer or a similarly horrific disease. They already have more on their plate than anyone should have to deal with. Is it humane to add these ill-founded fears to the heart-wrenching experience that they are already enduring? I thought back to the time when I visited the hospital as a child to see my beloved grandmother who had been hospitalized there during the period before she passed away. I was already distraught with worry at the prospect of losing someone who had been so close to me. Had such heightened security been in place at the time, it would have only increased the perception of fear at this difficult time.

I saw the same reflex to reach for ever-tighter security again recently in the response of the Jewish community to the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. At a recent family gathering, my sister told of how she had joined a committee at the local synagogue working to increase security after the shooting. Windows throughout the building would be replaced with bulletproof glass. More visibly, the entrances would be kept locked, and visitors would gain access by speaking to an employee at a “bank window” that would be installed and passing their ID through a small space under the glass. The cost of implementing all of this added security would be significantly high as to require the synagogue to solicit sizeable donations earmarked specifically for this purpose.

It is understandable that many would feel the instinct to react this way and seek to protect themselves and their families and neighbors from this type of attack by any means necessary. One death is of course one too many. Yet again, it would be wise to assess the level of the threat actually posed before jumping to take drastic action. The Pittsburgh shooting killed 11 people out of 7.2 million Jews living in the United States. This type of violence is not a regular occurrence, being believed by some to be the deadliest anti-Semitic attack to ever take place in the country. Previously, the deadliest such attack had taken place in 1960, more than half a century earlier. Therefore, it is unlikely that such attacks will become commonplace. Yet even if—God forbid—an attack of this magnitude were to take place every year, the probability of any particular Jew being killed would be less than 1 in 650,000. For comparison, the probability of an American being murdered in a one-year period is about 1 in 19,000. The probability of being killed in a car accident is 1 in 9,500. The probability of an American committing suicide is about 1 in 7,500. If our goal is to save as many lives as possible, then we would be well advised to invest in preventing gun violence, driving while intoxicated, and major depression rather than turning synagogues into fortresses.

It is important to keep the threat faced by Jewish-Americans in perspective. While it is true that the hate crime rate for Jews is one of the highest for any minority, hate crimes are relatively rare. In 2017, the most recent year for which data are available, there were 976 hate crimes against Jews, for an incidence of about 1 in 6,000. Of those, 71% were vandalism, not violent crimes where the victim’s life or safety was in danger. None of these hate crimes were homicides. In fact, prior to the Pittsburgh attack, the last time that a homicide was classified as an anti-Semitic hate crime was in 2000. Contrast this with the risk of terrorism in Israel and the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe, and the United States in the 21st century is perhaps the safest place to be Jewish since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.

This did not happen by accident. It happened because tolerance of those who are different is one of our core values as Americans and because, over the decades, Jewish-Americans have demonstrated that they seek only to live in peace and harmony with their fellow citizens of all faiths and races. When my grandparents and great-grandparents immigrated to this country, they lived in tenements and faced the threat of anti-Semitic violence by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. The world in which I live is one in which almost half of Jewish-Americans have six-figure household incomes, more than any other religious group. This success is only possible because we live in a tolerant country and have built good relationships with citizens of other backgrounds.

Yet, there is reason for concern that this progress could be endangered if Jews overreact to the attack in Pittsburgh. If we equip our synagogues with a level of security fit for a military base, especially if no such steps are taken by houses of worship belonging to other faiths, we could create the perception that we view the larger community as posing a threat to us. Certainly, this is not the intent of the Jewish community, but it could nonetheless have this effect. People do not enjoy being viewed as threatening and may come to resent those whom they perceive as viewing them that way. As such, these measures run the risk of unintentionally inflaming the very anti-Semitism from which they are intended to protect us. Our own actions can affect the risk of hate crimes as much as anything coming from Donald Trump. In fact, by promoting the perception of a conflict between minorities and the majority, rather than an alliance in which minorities and the majority work together to build a better future for all Americans, we may be increasing the probability that Mr. Trump will be re-elected.

The synagogue proposals have their origin in practices that are now widespread in schools, another place where the security environment is very different today from what it was several decades ago. In 1999, only 19% of schools were monitored using surveillance cameras. By 2016, this had increased to 81%, more than quadrupling. Requiring faculty and staff to wear their ID cards on their bodies has also become far more prevalent, more than doubling from 25% to 68% of schools. These increased security measures were instituted while crime rates in schools were decreasing.

Lenore Skenazy

In her book Free-Range Kids, Lenore Skenazy documents a broader climate of fear surrounding the possibility of the unthinkable happening to children, leading to ever-increasing restrictions on children’s freedom. She advocates for allowing them to have more opportunities to experience the world without constant adult supervision, as was done in the past and continues to be done in other cultures, arguing that the fears driving this trend are unfounded:

Over at the Crimes Against Children Research Center, they track these things (as you might guess from their name). David Finkelhor, the founder of the center and a professor at the University of New Hampshire, says that violent crime in America has been falling since it peaked in the early nineties. That includes sex crimes against kids. He adds that although perhaps the streets were somewhat safer in the fifties, children today are statistically as safe from violent crime as we parents were, growing up in the seventies, eighties, and nineties.

So, when parents say, “I’d love to let my kids have the same kind of childhood I had, but times have changed,” they’re not making a rational argument.

Times have not changed. Especially not where childhood abductions are concerned. Those crimes are so very rare that the rates do not go up or down by much in any given year. Throw in the fact that now almost everyone is carrying a cell phone and can immediately call the police if they see a kid climbing into a van filled with balloons, a clown, and automatic weapons, and times are, if anything, safer.

Skenazy argues that the lack of autonomy given to children, and the resulting decrease in opportunities to play outside and interact in person with other kids, has led to a host of adverse outcomes, including obesity, diabetes, vitamin D deficiency, depression, and difficulty learning to function independently when the time comes to make the transition to college.

One of the best examples that Skenazy provides of how widespread fear is not always indicative of a genuine threat pertains to Halloween candy. When I was a child, the elementary school that I attended had an annual assembly at which a police officer gave a presentation about staying safe on Halloween. We were admonished not to eat any candy that was not sealed in a wrapper from the factory, as such candy might have been poisoned. In my home, we were forbidden from eating any candy obtained from trick-or-treating until it had been inspected by a parent.

Throughout all of this, we were led to believe that these precautions were being taken in response to tragedies in the past, that some adult with a very sick mind had been handing out poisoned candy to unsuspecting children. Yet Skenazy reveals to her readers that the total number of cases in which this has actually happened is exactly zero. She was able to locate a grand total of three cases in which a child was poisoned on Halloween. In every single one, the culprit turned out to be a member of the child’s family, not a neighbor handing out candy at the door. One of these cases involved a father who took out a life insurance policy for his son and then poisoned him, believing that he would be able to escape prosecution by blaming it on candy from an unknown stranger. If he had not been led to believe that he would be able to get away with his crime by the hysteria surrounding this non-existent threat, perhaps his son would still be alive today.

Of course, none of this should be read to imply that there are no other circumstances under which such high levels of security would be necessary. If there were to be problems with poisoned Halloween candy, then it would become necessary to take steps to protect children from being harmed. Jews in Israel, who have long faced the very real threat of suicide bombings and rocket attacks, are justified in instituting heightened levels of security that those of us living in the United States have been fortunate enough to not need.

Yet even when such measures are necessary, we should always be willing to listen with an open mind to those who are skeptical, as they may provide valuable warnings of otherwise unforeseen consequences of our actions and even alternative proposals that might allow us to gain the same safety benefits without the adverse effects. We should not summarily write off such people as being unsympathetic to those who have suffered. We should also periodically re-evaluate whether increased security measures are still necessary or if the threat has passed. If it is the latter, we should begin to gradually remove the additional measures and evaluate the effects of doing so. If there is little or no adverse impact, then we should return to the way things were before the threat arose.

That life entails a certain level of risk is an inherent part of the human condition. What is within our control is how we respond to this reality. We can react constructively by taking steps to reduce unnecessary risk, with a focus on the places where the danger is greatest as supported by data. We can also react rashly, rushing to take extreme measures in response to any threat that presents itself without thinking about the consequences, which could in some cases could be just as destructive as that from which we seek to protect ourselves. The three phenomena described in this article are only examples of a pattern that has repeated itself throughout history. From Japanese internment and McCarthyism to the erosion of civil liberties under the Patriot Act and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, many of our greatest mistakes have resulted from failing to respond constructively to risk and instead rushing to take action without regard for its unintended effects. By pausing to consider the best approach when confronted with a threat and listening respectfully to the voices of all those who have something to add to the dialogue, we can reduce the chance of repeating history. The choice is ours.

Gideon Scopes is a software engineer.